Research reveals history of Chinese agriculture

Jan 15, 2007

A research team headed by a University of Toronto anthropology professor has published a study containing new insights into the history of agriculture in a region of China where one of the world’s earliest state-level societies originated.

Professor Gary Crawford, an archeologist and chair of anthropology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, led the team whose research into the historical sequence of crop development in the Yilou River valley has just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Yilou valley is part of the Huanghe (Yellow) River basin in north China, a region where advances in agricultural practices in turn gave rise to centralized forms of government and an area where the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties developed (at different times) during the Bronze Age.

“We know very little about the development of agriculture in China, which is so important in terms of world agricultural history,” Crawford said. “Our research is revealing a rich potential for understanding a previously poorly known food production system in the Yilou valley, one of the major regions in the world where agriculture developed.”

Entitled Plants and People from the Early Neolithic to Shang Periods in North China, the paper presents findings obtained during an archeological survey conducted from 1998 to 2002. Crawford and Gyoung-Ah Lee, a former PhD student at U of T, are co-authors of the paper. Li Liu from Australia’s La Trobe University and Xingcan Chen from the Chinese Academy of Social Science in Beijing are the principal field investigators.

The paper details the development sequence for crops and other plants in the Yilou valley from about 6000 BC to 1300 BC. Radiocarbon dating of seeds gathered at 26 archeological sites showed that two forms of millet, foxtail and broomcorn, were being cultivated in the valley sometime around 6000 BC, followed by the introduction of rice and wheat by about 2000 BC.

Crawford said the research shows that cultivation of millet allowed for the founding of state-level societies -– societies with a central government or administration -- in this part of China, but the addition of rice and wheat to the crop mix played a crucial role in contributing to their success and expansion.

“So for the very first time we can say which crops were in north China and in which sequence they were added. We were hypothesizing in the past but now we have the hard data and can move on to more sophisticated levels of thinking about how advances in agricultural development allowed for the rise of state-level societies,” Crawford said.

One of the more intriguing findings of the research is that for several thousand years in the region substantial political and social development was made possible by the cultivation of millet. Crawford said millet grain is quite small compared with other grains and it would be necessary to grow large volumes of the crop to feed a population.

“Obviously these people at this time in history saw some advantage to this plant,” Crawford said. “We feed it to birds today but millet was crucial to the foundation of Chinese agriculture and, in a sense, Chinese civilization. In the past, we suspected that from the archeological evidence but now we’ve proven it with this research.”

Source: University of Toronto

Explore further: New branch added to European family tree

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Alibaba signals that China is an innovative tech center

May 16, 2014

When most people think of the Chinese tech industry, they probably envision vast Foxconn factories with armies of workers churning out iPhones and laptops. And Silicon Valley, in this popular view, is the world's tech innovation ...

Recommended for you

New branch added to European family tree

10 hours ago

The setting: Europe, about 7,500 years ago. Agriculture was sweeping in from the Near East, bringing early farmers into contact with hunter-gatherers who had already been living in Europe for tens of thousands ...

'Hidden Treasure of Rome' project unveiled

Sep 16, 2014

For more than a century, hundreds of thousands of historical artifacts dating back to before the founding of Rome have been stored in crates in the Capitoline Museums of Rome, where they have remained mostly untouched. Now, ...

NOAA team reveals forgotten ghost ships off Golden Gate

Sep 16, 2014

A team of NOAA researchers today confirmed the discovery just outside San Francisco's Golden Gate strait of the 1910 shipwreck SS Selja and an unidentified early steam tugboat wreck tagged the "mystery wreck." ...

User comments : 0