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20 May 2013
Agriculture may predate rice in subtropical China

Using a new method of analysis on ancient grinding stones, archaeologists in southern subtropical China have discovered evidence that people living in Xincun 5000 years ago may have practised agriculture before the arrival of domesticated rice in the region.
     Current archaeological thinking is that the advent of rice cultivation along the Lower Yangtze River marked the beginning of agriculture in southern China. Poor organic preservation in the study region means that traditional archaeo-botany techniques are not possible.
     The research was the result of a two-year collaboration between Doctor Huw Barton, from the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester (UK), and Doctor Xiaoyan Yang, of the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research, at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.
     Doctor Barton, Senior Lecturer in Bio-archaeology, describes the find: "We have used a relatively new method known as ancient starch analysis to analyse ancient human diet. At Xincun we really hit the jackpot. Starch was well-preserved and there was plenty of it. While some of the starch granules we found were species we might expect to find on grinding and pounding stones - some seeds and tuberous plants such as freshwater chestnuts, lotus root and the fern root - the addition of starch from palms was totally unexpected and very exciting."
     Several types of tropical palms store prodigious quantities of starch. This starch can be literally bashed and washed out, dried as flour, and eaten. It is not particularly tasty, but it is reliable and can be processed all year round. Many communities in the tropics today - particularly in Borneo and Indonesia, but also in eastern India - still rely on flour derived from palms.
     Doctor Barton said: "The presence of at least two, possibly three species of starch-producing palms, bananas, and various roots, raises the intriguing possibility that these plants may have been planted nearby the settlement. If they were planted at Xincun, this implies that agriculture did not arrive here with the arrival of domesticated rice, as archaeologists currently think, but that an indigenous system of plant cultivation may have been in place by the mid-Holocene."
     Barton continues: "The adoption of domesticated rice was slow and gradual in this region; it was not a rapid transformation as in other places. Our findings may indicate why this was the case. Future work will focus on grinding stones from nearby sites to see if this pattern is repeated along the coast."

Edited from EurekAlert!, ScienceDaily (17 May 2013), ScienceBlog (May 2013)

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