Ancient Asian Civilizations Farmed Lots of Different Kinds of Rice

By Botkin-Kowacki, Eva | The Christian Science Monitor, July 27, 2016 | Go to article overview

Ancient Asian Civilizations Farmed Lots of Different Kinds of Rice


Botkin-Kowacki, Eva, The Christian Science Monitor


Rice is a staple gracing billions of plates across the globe today. But the origins of the popular domesticated grain have long been shrouded in mystery.

In an effort to glimpse the past use of the cultivated cereal, a team of scientists dug into the genome of grains of rice excavated from archaeological sites in Japan and Korea, and the research team's ancient DNA analysis revealed that these 950- to 2,800-year- old grains of rice weren't exactly what they expected.

The rice farmed in archaic Japan and on the Korean Peninsula was surprisingly diverse, according to the team's paper published Tuesday in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution. And this suggests that the cultivated crops were being moved long distances.

The kernels of Asian domesticated rice, Oryza sativa, that make it onto plates today are largely of two main varieties: O. sativa japonica and O. sativa indica. Today japonica, the short, sticky rice often used for sushi, is largely cultivated in dry fields of northern and eastern China, Japan, and on the Korean peninsula. Indica, the non-sticky, long-grained variety, prefers to grow submerged in water across the tropics.

Scientists thought that japonica varieties were the only domesticated rice to grow in northern China, Japan, and on the Korean peninsula. But the genetic markers that this research team, led by Masahiko Kumagai at the University of Tokyo, looked at weren't all a match for japonica. Instead, some seemed to be more genetically similar to indica.

"If you had asked me at any point previous to reading this paper, I would've said that there was no way that you would find indica in those locations," Briana Gross, a plant geneticist at the University of Minnesota Duluth who was not part of the study, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

But "there are written records mentioning the existence of rice variety having indica-like name originated from China in feudal Japan," Dr. Kumagai writes in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. "Here, we confirmed the existence of indica-like rice 950 years ago in Japan with DNA ... So, this might be a wisdom of ancient farmers."

Determining which varieties of rice were used in various parts of ancient Asia could help scientists "better understand the life of ancient people in Asia," Kumagai says.

Scientists know little about the movement of rice among different ancient civilizations, whether it was by trade or by being carried to a new locale, Dr. Gross says. Most of the discussion had centered around rice moving from eastern Asia to southeastern Asia rather than northward, she explains. "This study points out that we need to consider that [other direction] when we think about the history of rice."

Understanding that rice could have been being traded among far- flung civilizations over 2,000 years ago could help scientists better understand how domestic rice has evolved. …

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