Academic journal article Antiquity

Site of Baodun Yields Earliest Evidence for the Spread of Rice and Foxtail Millet Agriculture to South-West China

Academic journal article Antiquity

Site of Baodun Yields Earliest Evidence for the Spread of Rice and Foxtail Millet Agriculture to South-West China

Article excerpt

Introduction

The spread of agriculture to south-west China had important implications for the local development of social complexity. It eventually led to the region becoming a population centre and a breadbasket throughout dynastic Chinese history, and to be the linchpin for the first unification of China in 221 BC (all BC dates are calibrated radiocarbon determinations [cal BC] or historical dates BC/AD; Sage 1992). Despite its clear importance for understanding the development of social complexity, relatively little is known about the spread of agriculture across China from its areas of first development in the Middle Huanghe and Middle and Lower Yangzi alluvial zones (Hunan Sheng Wenwu Kaogu Yanjiusuo 2006; Fuller et al. 2007, 2008; Liu et al. 2007). A recent paper in Antiquity (Zhang & Hung 2010) outlined possible avenues of spread into this region, but for lack of published data, the processes by which that occurred were not a primary focus of their discussion. The current article presents new data that add to this picture and allow us to revise some of the conclusions previously offered, as well as to discuss more concretely the differing but complementary roles that rice and millet agriculture played in this spread.

South-west China is ecologically diverse and contains a variety of ecosystems including the northern foothills of the Himalayas, the rugged landscapes of the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau and the Three Gorges, and the low lying plains of the Sichuan Basin (Figure 1). Rice was domesticated c. 7000-6000 BC in the Middle and Lower Yangzi valley (Crawford & Shen 1998; Fuller et al. 2007, 2008; Liu et al. 2007; Zhao 2010a), but agriculture appears to have taken more than 3000 years to spread to the south-west. This study provides the earliest directly dated evidence for the spread of agriculture to south-west China and argues that contrary to prior expectations, not only rice but also millet agriculture played an important role in this process. Furthermore, environmental factors, coupled with the different biological characteristics of these two crops, had profound effects on the development of social complexity in the region. In low-lying areas that provided the necessary ecological conditions for its success, rice agriculture could be intensified, spurring population growth and, inevitably, social change. Millets, on the other hand, were important for moving agriculture into the cooler and more difficult to irrigate uplands of the region.

The earliest evidence for rice and foxtail millet agriculture in south-west China comes from sites of the Baodun culture (c. 2700-1700 BC) in the Chengdu plain, Sichuan Province. From a complete absence of evidence for human occupation, the Chengdu plain suddenly became dotted with small hamlets and homesteads surrounding large walled sites (Chengdu Pingyuan Guoji Kaogu Diaocha Dui 2010). Ten walled sites have been discovered that range from 7-245ha in size (Wang 2006). The scale of these settlements and their enclosures, and by implication the labour force required to build them, suggests that important demographic and social transformations took place that would have been facilitated by abundant and reliable agricultural production.

Given the sudden arrival of the Baodun culture on the Chengdu plain c. 2700 BC and the absence of any obvious antecedent, its origins have been the subject of much discussion (Jiang 2001; Huang & Zhao 2004; Flad & Chen 2006; Zhang & Hung 2010). The lack of evidence for hunter-gatherer occupation in this area is surprising. Although geomorphological remodelling in this river delta may have hidden or destroyed the evidence, over five years of systematic survey in the Chengdu plain have failed to document any prior hunter-gatherer occupation (Chengdu Pingyuan Guoji Kaogu Diaocha Dui 2010). As a result, scholars have been silent on the potential role played by such populations in this spread and have hypothesised that the Baodun culture was established by agriculturalists migrating into the region (Jiang 2001; Huang & Zhao 2004; Zhang & Hung 2010). …

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