Study of grinding stones suggests adaption to ice age may have led to birth of agriculture in China

March 20, 2013 by Bob Yirka, report
Burial chamber of Sennedjem, Scene: Plowing farmer. Credit: Wikipedia.

( —A researcher from Stanford's Archaeology Center, working with colleagues in China has found evidence to support the notion that early hunter-gatherers in China turned to processing plant foods in order to survive the last ice-age and in so doing may have started down the path that would eventually lead to farming. The team, led by Li Liu studied grinding stones dated back to between 23,000 and 19,500 years ago, and have found that their use suggests that those that used them were doing so to supplement dwindling food supplies found via hunting. The group has published a paper detailing their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team studied three found in the Yellow River region and have dated back their use to a time somewhere between 23,000 and 19,500 years ago. This coincides with the peak of the last major ice-age () and suggests early hunter-gatherers had begun to rely more on gathering (and processing to some extent) as hunting became a less reliable food source. But because prior research by other groups has found that agriculture didn't get going in China until approximately 11,000 years ago, that means that it took approximately 12,000 years to move from eating , to growing them on purpose in specified ways.

In studying the grinding stones, the researchers found residue from the plants that were ground with them—they included grains such as millet as well as beans, yams and other roots. Other research has also found evidence to indicate that there was a short period of warmth in the region approximately 23,000 years ago, which would have provided an opportunity for people to begin exploiting such plants in earnest. That in turn appears to have led to developing methods to make such food more palatable by grinding them and perhaps mixing them together with other ingredients. This , due to adjusting to the ice-age, the team theorizes, could mark the turning point that eventually led to the development of agricultural practices as a means of giving people more control over the way their food was obtained.

Explore further: Europe's first farmers replaced their Stone Age hunter-gatherer forerunners

More information: Paleolithic human exploitation of plant foods during the last glacial maximum in North China, PNAS, Published online before print March 18, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1217864110

Three grinding stones from Shizitan Locality 14 (ca. 23,000–19,500 calendar years before present) in the middle Yellow River region were subjected to usewear and residue analyses to investigate human adaptation during the last glacial maximum (LGM) period, when resources were generally scarce and plant foods may have become increasingly important in the human diet. The results show that these tools were used to process various plants, including Triticeae and Paniceae grasses, Vigna beans, Dioscorea opposita yam, and Trichosanthes kirilowii snakegourd roots. Tubers were important food resources for Paleolithic hunter–gatherers, and Paniceae grasses were exploited about 12,000 y before their domestication. The long tradition of intensive exploitation of certain types of flora helped Paleolithic people understand the properties of these plants, including their medicinal uses, and eventually led to the plants' domestication. This study sheds light on the deep history of the broad spectrum subsistence strategy characteristic of late Pleistocene north China before the origins of agriculture in this region.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Unprecedented study of Picasso's bronzes uncovers new details

February 17, 2018

Musee national Picasso-Paris and the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS) have completed the first major material survey and study of the Musee national Picasso-Paris' ...

Using Twitter to discover how language changes

February 16, 2018

Scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London, have studied more than 200 million Twitter messages to try and unravel the mystery of how language evolves and spreads.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4 / 5 (4) Mar 20, 2013
Funny, they use an Egyptian fresno with a title of a Chinese find. Sometimes the writers of articles make me shake my head with the choice of illustrations they use.
Jack Heart
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 20, 2013
Paleolithic hunter–gatherers? Must have been the very same Paleolithic hunter–gatherers that built Göbekli Tepe in Turkey then painstakingly buried it. Or perhaps they built the Yonaguni Monument off the Ryukyu Islands in Japan. Then hunter–gathered themselves across the Kuroshio Current and erected Pumapunku in Bolivia but before they set sail they had some dental work done at Mehrgarh in Pakistan.

I wish these guys would just shut up and dig and quit trying to explain what they find in accordance with university dogma that has become more wearisome than their own nonexistent libidos. These people are technicians that have no business trying to think for themselves in the first place.The tedious excavation of archeological sites is a vital trade in the reacquisition of knowledge but a trade none the less. The fact that you can make a pair of sneakers does not make you LeBron James. Shut up and dig.
not rated yet May 17, 2013
Regarding choice of illustration: It reminds me of the Monthy Python episode where a dig in Egypt reveals Polynesian influence during the third dynasty...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.