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The Beginnings of Agriculture in China A Multiregional View


By 9000 cal BP, the first sedentary villages, marking the Early Neolithic, are present in Northeast China, North China, and the Middle and Lower Yangtze regions, but plant and animal domesticates do not make a substantial contribution to subsistence until after several more millennia, when domesticated millet or rice agricultural production is finally in place. While archaeobotanical approaches have been the primary focus of recent studies, this paper looks specifically at the cultural developments in these four regions leading up to the emergence of agriculture in each. It is hypothesized that agriculture does not emerge independently in each of these regions but rather in interrelated steps through variable forms of interaction and information and social exchange within and between these regions. Interaction is currently evidenced through shared forms of material culture and by parallel and contemporaneous cultural developments.

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Our understanding of the origins of agriculture in China is still of low resolution, particularly during a critical time period between 12,500 and 9000 cal BP when hunter-gatherers in four distinct but interconnected geographical regions—Northeast China, the North China plains, and the Middle and Lower Yangtze River regions—establish the first sedentary villages. Although reliance on the cereals rice and millet was once thought to be a major part of this fundamental behavioral change, in recent years it has become clear that this is not the case. The advent of farming and the domestication of cereals was a slow process occurring over 4 millennia in a number of small steps, region to region, after sedentism and other social and ideological changes of “Neolithization” had begun.

Most previous work for China has focused on the archaeobotany of rice or millet or has looked at the archaeology only of single regions. The view here is purposefully broader, looking at parallel contemporaneous developments across both northern and southern China, as it is within this broad context of continuous but variable contact between Neolithic systems that we witness the gradual and interrelated development of millet (dry) and rice (wet) agriculture: there are not multiple independent “inventions” of agriculture.

The processes of Neolithization are rooted in the Late Paleolithic (Cohen 2003). Because of a gap in archaeological coverage for the last few millennia of the Pleistocene, available data begin with the earliest-known villages already established from ca. 9000 cal BP. These typically contain clusters of small round houses and storage pits, abundant and increasingly diversified pottery assemblages, edge-polished axes or adzes, bone tools, ritual features, and discreet cemetery areas, but subsistence still does not rely on domesticated plants. It is such sites that we here call “Early Neolithic.” What follows is an overview of the archaeology of the Early Neolithic in these four regions.

Recent debate has focused on the timing and pace of the domestication of cereals—rice or millet—found in the Early Neolithic and Middle Neolithic villages and how cereals are incorporated into changing modes of subsistence over a 3,000-year period (Crawford 2011; Fuller and Qin 2009; Fuller et al. 2009, 2010 and references therein; Liu, Lee, and Jiang 2007; Zhao 2011). We still do not know where cereal domestication first occurred. South China, where rice production begins, was assumed to have the earliest domestication and agriculture, but new data have given rise to a counterargument for northern millet farming as having primacy or independent invention (Barton et al. 2009; Bar-Yosef 2011; Bettinger et al. 2007; Lu 1999, 2006; Shelach 2000). The paucity of securely dated sites leaves this an open question.

Cross-regional interactions leading to farming’s establishment and spread were facilitated by the interlacing river systems of eastern China. By 8900 cal BP, people in sedentary villages in northern and southern China lived in fundamentally different ways than their Late Pleistocene ancestors, and the socioeconomic and ideological changes of the Neolithic were well in place but still without agriculture (e.g., Cohen 1998; Crawford 2006; Lu 1999, 2005; Shelach 2000; Underhill and Habu 2006; Yasuda 2002 and references therein; Zhang and Hung 2008). The organizational and ideological changes of the Early Neolithic arise first and out of synchronization with the slower pathways leading from increasing exploitation of wild plants to their management and cultivation, to the fixing of morphological traits and domestication, and then to the spread of the domesticates (e.g., Fuller and Qin 2009; Fuller et al. 2009; Jones and Liu 2009).

The Geographical and Environmental Setting and Upper Paleolithic Precursors

The vast landmass of China consists of three major topographic “steps” (Ren, Yang, and Bao 1985). While Late Paleolithic sites are found in many regions, it is in the river drainages of the lowest “step” (sea level to 1,000 m) that hunter-gatherers first became sedentary and later domesticated plants and animals. Between 10,000 and 8900 cal BP, four Early Neolithic cultural clusters are recognized. Along the Middle and Lower Yellow River, on the North China and Central plains, we find the large village and cemetery sites of the Peiligang culture and closely related neighboring cultures. These feature the intensive exploitation of millet (and some rice). The interdigitating tributaries of the Huai River system tie the Peiligang cultures to two clusters in the Yangtze River system: the Pengtoushan culture of the Middle Yangtze region and Shangshan and related sites in the Lower Yangtze. These feature early sedentary villages and the exploitation of probably wild rice. A fourth cluster, in Northeast China along the Xiliaohe River in Inner Mongolia, features large hillside settlements of the Xinglongwa culture and possibly domesticated millet.1

Through the Terminal Pleistocene, Younger Dryas (ca. 12,800–11,600 cal BP), and onset of the Holocene (11,500 cal BP), marked variation in annual monsoon cycles and their intensities causes a shifting mosaic of localized environmental changes in China (Cohen 1998, 2002; Morrill, Overpeck, and Cole 2003; Yasuda et al. 2004; Yi and Saito 2004; Yi et al. 2003; Yuan et al. 2004). These would have been more severe and abrupt in the north and would have more greatly affected people at the margins of major phytogeographic zones (e.g., Hong and Ricklefs 2001; Yang and Ding 2008). As there is some correlation with cultural changes, the localized roles of climatic fluctuation in “Neolithization” require renewed attention (Bar-Yosef 2011).

The north-south division of Early Neolithic cultures mirrors that of their Upper Paleolithic predecessors (Cohen 2003). Terminal Pleistocene northern China features small ephemeral sites with lithics reflecting a broad range of technological strategies, including microblade production, polished bone tools, grinding stones and chipped stone axes and adzes, and body ornamentation, perhaps reflecting specialized adaptations to the more extreme and unstable environments of the region during the late Terminal Pleistocene (Elston and Brantingham 2002). Microblade sites in northern China such as Xiachuan (27,500–18,200 cal BP) and Shizitan (20,300–13,800 cal BP; Shanxi; fig. 1) are at the southernmost margin of an extensive Northern Asian microblade sphere (An 2000; Kuzmin, Keates, and Shen 2007; Lu 1999; Xia et al. 2002; Zhang 2002a).

Figure 1. 
Figure 1. 

Map of Early Neolithic cultures and sites in South China (Middle and Lower Yangtze regions), North China, and Northeast China mentioned in the text. 1, Yuchanyan; 2, Chengtoushan; 3, Pengtoushan; 4, Bashidang; 5, Xianrendong and Diaotonghuan; 6, Shangshan; 7, Kuahuqiao; 8, Xiaohuangshan; 9, Hemudu and Tianluoshan; 10, Dadiwan; 11, Shizitan; 12, Xiachuan; 13, Jiahu; 14, Peiligang; 15, Cishan; 16, Yuezhuang; 17, Xiaojingshan; 18, Houli; 19, Nanzhuangtou; 20, Yujiagou; 21, Zhuannian; 22, Xinglonggou.

Upper Paleolithic South China features stability in its typical cobble-tool industries (cores, flakes, choppers), which persist into the Early Neolithic. This has been attributed to greater environmental stability in this warmer, wetter, more resource-abundant region. It is in hunter-gatherer contexts in South China that pottery vessels—the earliest in the world—first appear, such as at Yuchanyan (Hunan) by 18,300 cal BP (Boaretto et al. 2009; Gu and Yuan 2006; Prendergast, Yuan, and Bar-Yosef 2009; Yuan 2002) and Xianrendong and Diaotonghuan (Jiangxi; 21,000–14,500 cal BP; MacNeish et al. 1998; Peng and Zhou 2006; Sun and Zhan 2004; Zhang 2002b; fig. 2). While it is not clear whether sedentary villages and plant domestication emerge first in the south or north, if environmental pressure is a causal factor for either, the resource-rich Yangtze River “land of plenty” would require different modeling than the north.

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Figure 2. 

Dates for Early Pottery (Late Paleolithic and Pottery Pre-Neolithic), Early Neolithic, and Middle Neolithic cultures and sites in South China, North China, and Northeast China mentioned in the text. Sources: A, Zhao et al. 2006; B, Cui and Zhou 2008; C, Zhejiang Shangshan 2007:16; D, Zhang 2007; E, Gansu Dadiwan 2006 and Liu 2006b; F, Cai 2000; G, Beijing Donghulin 2006; H, Qu et al., forthcoming; I, MacNeish et al. 1998; J, Shelach 2000, 2006; K, Yasuda et al. 2004; L, Boaretto et al. 2009; M, Institute of Archaeology 1991; N, Zhejiang Kuahuqiao 2004:226–227; O, Henan Jiahu 1999:515; P, Yin 2006; Q, Zhejiang Tianluoshan 2007; R, Hunan Pengtoushan 2006; S, Guo and Li 2002; T, Guo jia wen wu ju 2006 and Wang 2006; U, Lu et al. 2009.

Figure 2. 
Figure 2. 

Dates for Early Pottery (Late Paleolithic and Pottery Pre-Neolithic), Early Neolithic, and Middle Neolithic cultures and sites in South China, North China, and Northeast China mentioned in the text. Sources: A, Zhao et al. 2006; B, Cui and Zhou 2008; C, Zhejiang Shangshan 2007:16; D, Zhang 2007; E, Gansu Dadiwan 2006 and Liu 2006b; F, Cai 2000; G, Beijing Donghulin 2006; H, Qu et al., forthcoming; I, MacNeish et al. 1998; J, Shelach 2000, 2006; K, Yasuda et al. 2004; L, Boaretto et al. 2009; M, Institute of Archaeology 1991; N, Zhejiang Kuahuqiao 2004:226–227; O, Henan Jiahu 1999:515; P, Yin 2006; Q, Zhejiang Tianluoshan 2007; R, Hunan Pengtoushan 2006; S, Guo and Li 2002; T, Guo jia wen wu ju 2006 and Wang 2006; U, Lu et al. 2009.

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In Chinese archaeology, the presence of pottery has been taken as a marker for the Neolithic, but it is now apparent that these are seasonal sites of mobile hunter-gatherers with a small amount of coarse low-fired pottery. By 16,000–14,000 cal BP, pottery is distributed as widely as South China, Japan, and the Russian Far East (Cohen 1998, 2003; Kuzmin 2006; Wu and Zhao 2003). We hypothesize that pottery making spreads through these regions via social networks and is not reinvented in each. Pearson (2005) sees the pottery as invented for feasting that reaffirmed group bonds and collective identities (but see Hayden 2009). Even if so, pottery takes on new roles in the Early Neolithic as it diversifies in form and functions.

In North China, pottery appears at larger open-air sites featuring new adaptations by foragers. At Yujiagou (Hebei; TL 11,600–11,100 BP), on the cold arid grasslands northwest of the Taihang Mountains, pottery appears in a typical microblade assemblage (Guo and Li 2000, 2002). Pottery sites on the eastern warmer and wetter side of the Taihang range stand in ready contrast and can be seen as apparent precursors to the Early Neolithic. The lakeside Nanzhuangtou site (Hebei; 12,500–10,500 cal BP), dated to the Younger Dryas and Early Holocene, features flake tools (no microblades), polished axes, bone and antler tools, and querns and rollers, indicating seed processing. Chiseled wooden rods give evidence of woodworking. Nanzhuangtou has activity areas for fauna processing and cooking and two natural ditches filled with midden deposits; these become typical features of Neolithic sites. The earliest domesticated dog is identified at Nanzhuangtou (Yuan 2010). Small amounts of pig and chicken—later Neolithic domesticates—are present, but deer are the primary focus. Smoke blackening on pottery may indicate cooking over fire and a new dependence on pottery in food processing (Zhu 2002:98). Decorative elaboration may indicate increased social signaling using ceramics.

Two other nearby sites, both with microblades, also show important transitional elements. Zhuannian (Beijing; 11,300–10,300 cal BP) features a larger site size (ca. 0.5 ha), querns and rollers, small stone axes, and fragments of stone vessels (mortars?) as well as pottery (Zhao et al. 2006). Donghulin (Beijing; 11,000–9300 cal BP) has small pit burials. One (M2) contained a stone axe placed at the head of a flexed (perhaps bundled) individual with perforated shells placed about the rest of the body. Ten pit hearths, neatly lined with cobbles, show greater pyrotechnological controls (Beijing Donghulin 2006:5).

Nanzhuangtou, Zhuannian, and Donghulin show important transitional steps toward the Early Neolithic. We find new technologies such as grinding stones, pottery, and microblade knives as part of an adoption of broad-spectrum subsistence strategies (Lu 2006), but it is still not clear if plant exploitation included millet or whether or not these are sedentary sites.

The Early Neolithic

The appearance of Early Neolithic settlements sometime after 10,100 cal BP marks increased sedentism, population agglomeration, and departures from Late Paleolithic behavioral patterns. Many sites are enclosed by ditches and have distinct areas for houses, for domestic activities, for storage facilities, and for the earliest planned multigenerational cemeteries, sometimes with hundreds of burials. Early houses are typically small, round, and semisubterranean. Later they shift to a rectangular plan. Houses are frequently found in clusters of several tens, and with a few exceptions, most houses in a village are similar in size. Burials are uniform in size, and grave goods tend to be few. There is little evidence for functional differentiation between households or social status differences between individuals. Within regions, there can be differences in site size.

A key issue, discussed in detail elsewhere (Crawford 2009, 2011; Fuller and Qin 2008, 2009; Fuller et al. 2009; Jones and Liu 2009; Liu 2008; Liu, Lee, and Jiang 2007; Liu et al. 2007; Lu et al. 2009; Pan 2008; Zhao 2011), is the nature of plant and animal exploitation and whether domestication occurs in this period. Since the 1970s, abundant cereal remains excavated from storage pits and also found in pottery tempering were assumed to be from domesticates. In recent years, as archaeobotanical remains become systematically recovered, as well as through stable isotope studies (e.g., Barton et al. 2009; Hu, Ambrose, and Wang 2006; Hu et al. 2008; Pechenkina et al. 2005), a more complex picture is emerging of the degree of human manipulation of plants and their environment. Early Neolithic populations continued to base their subsistence on hunting-gathering-fishing but with intensified exploitation of the plants later cultivated in agricultural systems. Pig domestication occurs perhaps at 9000 cal BP (Larson et al. 2010; Yuan 2010). Other early domesticates are dog and chicken, with cattle, water buffalo, and sheep added later, but wild animals continue to be a major meat source throughout the Neolithic, although regional patterns of reliance on domesticated animals versus wild animals vary (An 2004; Yuan 2003; Yuan, Flad, and Luo 2008).

North China: Peiligang and Related Cultures

The Early Neolithic cultures of North China date from at least ca. 9000 cal BP (or possibly 10,000 cal BP for Cishan) through 7400 cal BP. These cultures share many similarities in settlement structure, houses, burials, pottery forms and decoration, tools, grinding stones, and subsistence practices, and so we cluster them into one group here. The individual archaeological cultures within this cluster include the Peiligang (Henan) and Cishan (Hebei) cultures in the lowland plains of the eastern Middle Yellow River, the Houli culture (Shandong) on the Lower Yellow River, and, dating later, the Dadiwan culture (Gansu and Shaanxi) in the western Middle Yellow River.

The Peiligang Culture, Jiahu, and North-South Connections

Peiligang culture sites range in size from under 1 to 20 ha. Excavated sites (all in Henan) include the typesite Peiligang , Shawoli , Egou , Shigu , and Shuiquan (see Li 2003), but the best understood is Jiahu (5.5 ha, 9000–8000 cal BP; Henan Jiahu 1999:515–519). The Peiligang component at the largest settlement, Tanghu , is said to cover 20 ha (Zhang and Xin 2008). Both Tanghu and Jiahu feature a ditch enclosing part of the settlement, with Jiahu’s being the oldest. As discussed by Crawford (2011) for Jōmon agriculture in Japan, human activities around these early village sites such as ditch construction and clearing would have a significant impact on plant populations and need further consideration.

Peiligang houses are semisubterranean and round in plan, ca. 2.5 m in diameter. Round houses are a common feature of the earliest sites across most regions. Interiors usually feature a hearth and a narrow sloped entryway or steps. At Jiahu (Henan Jiahu 1999), 42 of 45 structures are round and semisubterranean; most are a single room. At Tanghu, more than 60 semisubterranean round houses, some with double rooms, have been excavated along with 204 pits (Zhang and Xin 2008). Peiligang-related sites can have hundreds of these “ashpits” for refuse disposal, storage, and ritual use (such as dog burials) found in both domestic and cemetery areas (Li 2003:40–46).

Peiligang sites feature separate cemeteries within which can be several spatial clusters of graves, and two or three cemetery areas can be located at one site. Contemporaneous cemeteries may serve separate social groups. At Jiahu, the early period has two cemeteries, and the middle and late periods have six (Yan 2006:112). Thus, we have evidence for new forms of social organization emerging with Neolithization, with indications of both population agglomeration and social differentiation (such as clan formation) over time. Jiahu burials show some differentiation by sex and by grave-good amounts, but this differentiation in burial wealth occurs in a still egalitarian society with a continuum from poorest to richest, without clustering, and with random spatial distribution of the richest graves (Smith and Lee 2008). Unique to Jiahu are its numerous group primary burials and its many secondary burials, both group and individual.

Peiligang assemblages contain large numbers of adzes and the prototypical tongue-shaped spades, denticulate sickles, and four-footed large stone querns with rollers. Bone tools include elaborate barbed spears, points, and needles. The wide variety of pottery vessel types include mostly guan jars, hu tall-neck small-mouth jars, and bo small bowls; second most common are ding tripod vessels and wan bowls, and there are also pan platters, dou pedestal serving stands, and vessel lids (Li 2003:29–30; fig. 3).

Figure 3. 
Figure 3. 

Comparison of artifact types found in the Early Neolithic North China Peiligang and Cishan cultures and the South China Pengtoushan culture. 1, 14, and 24 are footed grinding stones of the Peiligang culture also found in Cishan later phases. 6 and 37 are cooking stands found in both North and South China. 19, 21, 32, 33, 43, and 44 are double-eared small-mouth hu jugs common at Pengtoushan and Peiligang sites. 7, 8, 17, 18, 27, and 28 are ding tripods. Objects are not to the same scale. 1–13 after Hebei Cishan 1981; 14, 15, 18, 19, 21, and 22 after Peiligang A 1978; 16, 17, and 20 after Peiligang B 1982; 23–34 after Henan Jiahu 1999; 36–44 after Hunan Pengtoushan 2006.

Jiahu provides evidence for special ritual practices such as dog pits and sets of tortoise shell rattles placed in some burials. Symbolic systems become more greatly manifested in pottery decoration as well as in individual “characters” found inscribed on tortoise shells (but not related to later writing as some suggest; Li et al. 2003). Jiahu inhabitants also had a well-developed cognitive scheme of music: crane bone flutes are capable of four- and seven-tone scales like ours today (Zhang, Xiao, and Lee 2004).

Jiahu is rich in animal and plant remains. Subsistence was based primarily on hunting-gathering-fishing. Domesticated dogs are present at Jiahu, as are pigs (Yuan 2010). Jiahu storage pits contain many plant remains, including rice. Although cereals have been the focus of discussions of subsistence systems, other plant foods probably played a larger role in Early Neolithic subsistence and need more consideration. At Jiahu, these include acorns (Quercus), trapa, and wild soybean. Jiahu’s small-sized rice remains are at the center of the debate on plant domestication (Crawford 2011; Fuller and Qin 2008; Fuller, Qin, and Harvey 2008a, 2008b; Fuller et al. 2009; Liu, Lee, and Jiang 2007; Zhao 2011; Zhao and Zhang 2009). Because cereal exploitation at other Peiligang and related culture sites shares a primary focus on millet, it is extremely interesting that rice is abundant but millet is absent at Jiahu even though Jiahu maintains many defining cultural traits of the Peiligang. The exploitation of rice rather than millet had no impact on material culture at Jiahu, differentiating it from other Peiligang sites, and so it was other factors—not millet consumption—that may have maintained cultural boundaries during this period.

The Peiligang sites demonstrate evolutionary leaps in sedentism and site structure, social organization and population dynamics, technologies, and symbolic activities on first entrance into the Early Neolithic. Jiahu also supports the hypothesis that interregional contacts through social networks drive shared parallel development. For example, Jiahu mixes Peiligang material culture related to subsistence—including grinding stones, sickles, and pottery—with foods from South China cultures such as lotus, trapa, and rice (Zhao 2011). Jiahu’s location ties it into the Huai River communication channels that connect northward into the Peiligang–Yellow River system and southward into the Pengtoushan–Yangtze River system. Shared pottery vessel forms with the Pengtoushan culture—such as the double-eared, round-bellied, high-neck, small-mouth hu jugs—demonstrate this (fig. 3), as does the appearance of ding tripod vessels and three-leg cooking stands in both regions (Wu 1997). It is unlikely that all of these identical forms developed independently. Also, Pengtoushan and Jiahu (unlike other Peiligang sites) have many secondary burials (and these burials in both areas contain the double-ear hu vessels; Henan Jiahu 1999:533). They each also have the earliest examples of settlement ditches.

Cishan: Broomcorn Millet at 10,000 cal BP?

The Cishan culture is centered in Hebei, north of the Peiligang culture region (see Liu, Hunt, and Jones 2009). Excavated sites include the 8-ha Cishan typesite (Hebei Cishan 1981) and Beifudi (Duan Beifudi 2007). Cishan’s excavations in the 1970s revealed 474 storage pits containing an estimated 50,000+ kg of ashy remains of cereals, originally identified as domesticated foxtail millet Setaria italica (Zhao 2005:91; 2011). Recent phytolith and biomolecular analyses of new samples from exposed sections at the site instead identify these as domesticated broomcorn (common) millet Panicum miliaceum, with new radiocarbon dates ranging from 10,300 to 8700 cal BP, which would mean Cishan could have the earliest domesticated cereals and dryland farming in China (Crawford 2009; Lu et al. 2009). But these radiocarbon dates, taken on samples from exposed surfaces and not from archaeological excavation, are more than a millennium earlier than those from the earlier excavations and may be problematic (Zhao 2011). Further verification is called for through systematic stratigraphic sampling and micromorphological study to assure secure contexts and associations for radiocarbon samples. Foxtail millet appears after broomcorn, at 8700 cal BP, and only in small quantities (which is the pattern at other sites, as well). Domesticated pig is present at Cishan as well (Yuan 2010). Cishan’s occupation ends at 7500 cal BP.

Cishan’s material culture shows close connections with the Peiligang regional phase. For example, grinding querns increase greatly through time. In its second phase, 52 four-footed querns are found—a unique form coming from Peiligang. Evidence for participation in wider-ranging interactions also is found. Vessel stands, ding tripods, and some ring-foot vessels are also present, and these vessel forms are distributed widely, even into South China. Flat-based ceramic jars and bowls and straight-sided wide-mouth cups (yu) may indicate ties to the northeast (below; fig. 3). Beifudi is notable for its ritual features, ceramic masks (earliest found in China), and jades (Duan Beifudi 2007). Early jades are also found in the northeast and at Dadiwan to the west.

The Houli Culture

Thirteen Houli sites are found at the margins of the central hills and outer floodplains of the Shandong peninsula skirting the northern edge of the highlands (Tong 2006:176). Houli sites are larger than Peiligang sites, but their chronology is poorly understood and may date later. Hu et al. (2008) date the Xiaojingshan site to 8200–7500 cal BP. The Houli typesite is 15 ha. The Xiaojingshan site features a three-sided ditch 1,130 m in total length. The earliest houses and two cemeteries are found within its bounds. Later houses and a cemetery are added outside the ditch. There are also early pottery kilns and many ash pits. Although houses are semisubterranean, they are square with rounded corners, 35–50+ m2 in size, with one to three hearths in the center and fired earthen walls. The rectangular shape may indicate a later date. Many have grinding querns installed in the floors near the hearths. Unlike Peiligang, the querns are footless and used on both sides, and they are found in domestic contexts, while Peiligang querns primarily are found in burials. Many houses also have large pottery cauldrons, sometimes half buried at the interior wall.

Houli ceramics feature more than 12 forms, but unlike Peiligang, there are few ding tripods. Instead, round-bottom fu cauldrons are the common cooking vessels. There are leg stands, as in South China and Peiligang (Tong 2006). Stable isotope studies of human bone from Xiaojingshan show C4 plants (millet) contributing 25% of dietary protein at 8000 cal BP; this increases, becoming the most significant protein source a millennium later (Hu et al. 2008). Flotation at the Yuezhuang site (ca. 7900 cal BP) recovered 40 broomcorn and one foxtail seed but also 26 rice grains, showing Oryza’s arrival in the Lower Yellow River by this time (Crawford, Chen, and Wang 2006). Nuts, a significant component of Early Neolithic diets in South China, have been identified at Houli sites but in smaller quantities (Crawford 2011).

Dadiwan and the Highlands

After the Peiligang-related cultures developed millet production in the lower elevations, they probably expanded into higher elevations and new ecological zones. The appearance of the Dadiwan (or Laoguantai ) culture may result from the spread of farming populations into new regions, a pattern that was to continue and accelerate through the Neolithic. The Dadiwan distribution area is centered on the Wei and Upper Hanshui Rivers and the loess plateau at ca. 1,500-m elevation, a higher and more arid region than the other Peiligang-related cultures. Sites include Dadiwan (Gansu), Lower Beishouling , Laoguantai, Yuanjunmiao , and Beiliu (Bai and Zhang 2001:15). At Dadiwan, 240 houses, 325 pits, 35 kilns, and 65 burials have been excavated at 10 localities. Dadiwan dates later than other Peiligang-related regions. The earliest occupation, ca. 7900–7200 cal BP, features round semisubterranean houses, pits, and burials. Ceramics share common forms with Peiligang, including tripod vessels and hu small-mouth jars, but one difference is the presence of painted pottery—bowls with a red painted band at the rim. At 6500 cal BP, the Dadiwan settlement expands from the second to the third river terrace. At this stage, a ditch is dug enclosing its 156 now rectangular semisubterranean houses positioned around a central plaza, and burial shifts to a separate cemetery zone. Ceramic forms increase, and fine wares and complex painted designs appear. Jade chisels also are found (Gansu Dadiwan 2006).

Bettinger et al. (2007, 2010) include Dadiwan in a scenario for an independent center of millet agricultural origins created by “low-level food producer” forager groups from the desert margins north of the site. Intensively specializing on broomcorn millet, they were forced to migrate to the unpopulated plains of the loess plateau when in the Early Holocene the region became more arid. In semipermanent settlements such as Dadiwan, they domesticated broomcorn millet, which is more tolerant to cold and drought than foxtail millet (Bettinger et al. 2007:91–93). In Barton et al.’s (2009) stable isotope study, they define this stage as a low-intensity domestic relationship between millet, humans, and their hunting dogs. The proposal that Dadiwan is an independent center because of its location 700 km from Peiligang, higher elevation, different environment, and focus on broomcorn is hardly acceptable. Dadiwan, established at 7900 cal BP, appears more than a millennium after the early phase at Jiahu or Cishan. Dadiwan is not a closed cultural system, and this view does not consider its evidence for interaction with other clusters in North and Northeast China, including broomcorn millet exploitation (found earlier at Xinglongwa and Cishan sites; Lu et al. 2009), settlement layout, house forms, kiln technology, adzes, some burial practices, jades, and shared ceramic vessel forms such as tripods and hu vessels. These make it difficult to account for Dadiwan as an independent center.

Furthermore, the late adoption of foxtail millet at Dadiwan at 5900 cal BP (Barton 2009) mirrors foxtail millet’s later growth in usage in the lower elevations as well. Xinglongwa produces jades, and the Beifudi Cishan site has jades. It is unlikely that all such features would have been reinvented independently at Dadiwan. Moreover, pottery production has not been found in the loess plateau or northern desert margins earlier than Dadiwan, and thus Dadiwan’s earliest but advanced pottery would most likely be the product of communication with or migration from farming cultures to the east. Therefore, Dadiwan can be seen as a secondary center representing an early spread of farming populations into new environmental zones. Interaction is also seen in the opposite direction: when Dadiwan potters added painting to their repertoire, it quickly worked its way into the northeast and down the Yellow River into the Yangshao -related cultures.

The Early Neolithic in Northeast China: The Xinglongwa Culture

The occupations of the few dated settlements in Northeast China’s Early Neolithic Xinglongwa culture begin 5 centuries later than the earliest in the Yellow River region. These settlements, however, parallel what is seen in contemporaneous settlements in the Yellow River region. Xinglongwa sites, in eastern Inner Mongolia, include Xinglongwa, Baiyinchanghan , Chahai , Nantaizi , Xinglonggou , and Beichengzi (Liu 2006a). Radiocarbon dates from Xinglongwa sites range from ca. 8300 to 7400 cal BP. The cultural sequence continues with the Fuhe culture and then the Zhaobaogou culture ca. 7100–6700 cal BP (Liu 2006b; Shelach 2006).

Subsistence in Xinglongwa may include domesticated millets (Zhao 2011), but wild plants and animals make up the majority of the diet. Flotation at Xinglonggou recovered many carbonized seeds, most of which are wild grasses but that also include much broomcorn millet and a small amount of foxtail millet (Liu 2006b:9; Zhao 2005:91–92)—a pattern that is similar to North China sites. These millets, dating ca. 7650 cal BP, are morphologically domesticated (Zhao 2011).

No domesticated animals are reported for Xinglongwa sites, although domesticated pigs are already found in South and North China by this time period, but the hunting of deer and wild boar is an important part of the economy. By the Zhaobaogou period, mortality profiles, but not morphology, of pigs suggest domestication (Shelach 2000:283). In Xinglongwa sites, early sacrificial usage of pigs and deer is found, too. Such animal sacrifice becomes a mainstay of later Neolithic and Bronze Age religious activities. In grave M118 at Xinglongwa, a 50-year-old male was interred with one male and one female pig. In house F5 at Xinglonggou, 12 pig crania and 3 deer crania—most with a hole drilled through the forehead—were placed into the house floor (Liu 2006b:9).

Xinglongwa lithics are more diverse than other regions, retaining Late Paleolithic flake tools and microblades and blades while adding polished tools. Both microblades and blades are also found at Beifudi in the Cishan culture to the south. Because true blades are rare in the Chinese Late Paleolithic and Early Neolithic, this commonality may be significant. Tools include flaked and sometimes fully polished or edge-polished rectangular stone “spades” (some with waists) and polished axes/adzes (suggesting forest clearing) and awls. The percentage of polished tools increases into the Zhaobaogou period (Liu 2006b:8–9). Bone-handle composite tools are inset with microblades. Use-wear analysis of stone “plows,” which are up to 30 cm long, suggests they were used to work soil. Stone querns and rollers are found in installations near the walls inside Xinglongwa houses and may have been used for grinding grains. Querns are relatively large, up to 40 cm across and 10–30 cm thick. These are sometimes found associated with large ceramic basins installed in the house floors (Shelach 2000:384), and this is a domestic pattern shared with North China Houli culture sites.

Xinglongwa pottery is sand tempered, coarse, and low fired. Vessel forms are few and mostly jars and bowls. Flat-based vessels predominate, with straight vessel walls angling outward to form wide vessel mouths. Vessel surfaces can be covered with rows of impressed or incised patterns, most notably the Z-shaped motif and net patterns. Zhaobaogou culture pottery becomes elaborated with more complex decorative motifs, including geometric and net forms over the vessel surface. During the Zhaobaogou period the first fine clay pottery appears in the region. Decorative motifs combine intertwined elements from deer, birds, boar, and other animals (see Liu 2000). The intricate designs, possibly produced by individuals with specialized skills, are early examples of iconographic or artistic motifs that blossom in the later Neolithic (Shelach 2000:389–393).

During the Xinglongwa period, early examples of carved jades are found in house floors and burials (Shelach 2000:394), establishing the roots of the ritual jade production that becomes a hallmark of this region by the Middle Neolithic Hongshan culture. Jades found in the Dadiwan culture (above) date slightly later.

Xinglongwa Settlements

Unlike other regions, Xinglongwa sites are located primarily on hillsides, suggesting unique considerations for their placement. Larger sites range 2–10 ha, some with shallow ditches around them. Houses are numerous, closely spaced, and arranged in rows, with one to three clusters at each site. At Beichengzi, there are 214 houses in 11 rows within the outer ditches, while Xinglongwa has 94 houses in 11 rows (Liu 2006b:4–5; Wu 2002:109; Yan 2006:112). Public spaces and ceremonial installations are also found. Some sites have a small plaza at the center containing the largest structure at the site. At Chahai, a 120-m2 structure is in the plaza and has an associated 19.7-m-long “dragon-shaped” stone piling with burials and a sacrificial pit (Liu 2006b:4–5).

Xinglongwa houses are semisubterranean and rectangular with central hearths, and most range in size from 50 to 80 m2. A common and unique Xinglongwa practice is burial—individual male or female or child group internments—under house floors (Liu 2006a:11). Pits possibly used for storage are also found dispersed among the houses as well as inside. These contain potsherds and animal bones, while one at Nantaizi had more than 200 stone tools (Shelach 2000:401). The Xinglongwa rectangular houses date later than the round semisubterranean houses from the early phases in North China. Without formal reports being available for Xinglongwa sites, we still know little about their internal organization, their economic activities, their community integration, and the structure of these early sedentary communities (for the subsequent Zhaobaogou period, see Shelach 2006).

The Early Neolithic in South China: Pengtoushan and Shangshan (Middle Yangtze Region)

The Pengtoushan culture represents the Early Neolithic of the Middle Yangtze region. Sites are distributed in the Liyang Plain of the Lishui River in northern Hunan Province. Five sites have been excavated: Pengtoushan, Bashidang , Fenshanbao , Huangjiayuan , and Tujiatai (Hunan Pengtoushan 2006; Yin 2006). The Pengtoushan culture sites have radiocarbon dates ca. 10,000–8400 cal BP but probably continued for another several centuries. Sites are probably permanent villages with subsistence still based on hunting-fishing-gathering but also with exploitation and perhaps manipulation of wild rice. Soundings at Bashidang and other sites show that an earlier but poorly understood village phase exists before the Pengtoushan culture called the “Lower Bashidang” culture.

Positioned on a slight rise above the current fields and water channels of the plain, the Pengtoushan site is ca. 2 ha in size. The later Bashidang site is ca. 3 ha in size and better preserved (Hunan Pengtoushan 2006). Bashidang is one of the largest Early Neolithic sites here, with others typically under 1 ha (Yan 2006:113). Through time, South China settlements remain smaller than northern ones, perhaps because of the watery topography of the Yangtze basin or later because of rice agriculture’s demands for available level ground for managing water flow (Yan 2006:113).

Houses at Pengtoushan are semisubterranean and comparatively small, with irregular round shapes and hearths of piled fired earth and clay. A few are rectangular and built at ground level on a low base of clay and sand. Among Bashidang’s 24 houses there are fewer semisubterranean and more surface structures, including pile dwellings. Two houses built on earthen platforms 30–50 cm high have a large central post with animal bones deposited near it, perhaps ritually. A ritual function may also hold for most of the 80 excavated pits at Bashidang. They are carefully dug, 30–50 cm in diameter, with straight walls and a flat base. Fired earth, pottery sherds, polished black stone ornamental rods, a few polished stone objects, or cobbles are cached inside many. These are similar to the sacrificial pits found in the Middle Neolithic “altar” features at the nearby Chengtoushan settlement (Yin 2006).

Funerary treatment in Pengtoushan is simpler than in North China. The 100 graves at Bashidang and 21 at Pengtoushan are small shallow pits of rectangular, rounded, or irregular shape. Most are secondary, but some are primary and flexed. Grave goods include only one to four objects, usually a fu cauldron or a high-neck small-mouth jar or a stone tool (Bai and Zhang 2001:23). Bashidang burials are placed at the perimeter of the residential area but are not clustered together. Elaborate vertical pit graves with greater numbers of grave goods in larger distinct cemetery areas do not appear until the Middle Neolithic Daxi (6400–5500 cal BP) and Qujialing (5500–4500 cal BP) cultures, such as at Chengtoushan (Chen 2006:210).

Archaeobotanical remains at Bashidang include 67 species of plants. Rice at Bashidang, probably a secondary food resource, has been described as a cultivated form that shows signs of human selective pressure (Hunan Pengtoushan 2006:519; Zhang and Pei 1997), but Fuller, Harvey, and Qin (2007:323), noting markedly thin rice at the site, interpret it as immature and morphologically wild. Other plants include wild soybeans, trapa, plum (Prunus mumu), peach (Prunus persica), and wild grape. Fauna includes six species of fish, birds, Sus sp., Cervus sp., water deer, muntjac, and wild water buffalo (Bubalus sp.; Hunan Pengtoushan 2006:513).

Remarkably, although the Pengtoushan culture settlements are most likely permanent sedentary villages with a new and increasingly intensive pattern of exploitation of rice and other plants that would also become domesticates, its lithic assemblage still retains regional Paleolithic characteristics. Pengtoushan still features mostly cobble tools, small flaked-flint tools (e.g., scrapers), and a few axes and adzes possibly used for woodworking (Hunan Pengtoushan 2006:587); this is not like later specialized assemblages associated with rice agriculture (He 1995).

Pengtoushan pottery features uneven forming of vessels, but vessel walls are thinner than Pleistocene pottery, measuring 0.6–0.8 cm. Round-bottom vessel forms predominate, and there is much coarse cord marking (He 1995). Wares have fine sand or organic tempering, including rice husks and leaves (Pei 2002). Double-eared hu jars make up 12%–15% of the assemblages and vessel stands 4%–11% (Hunan Pengtoushan 2006:586, 622–628). As mentioned above, both are also found at Jiahu and in other Peiligang-related cultures, perhaps reflecting contact between these regions (fig. 3).

Bashidang, like Jiahu, is the earliest settlement found in the Yangtze region to feature a surrounding ditch, and it dates to the same time period, ca. 8800 cal BP. With sides of 170–200 m in length, the ditch was ca. 4 m wide, with sloping edges to a depth of 0.5–2 m. It may have in part made use of a diverted river channel, allowing drainage from the settlement into the river (Pei 2006 [2004]:280). Bashidang’s ditch building establishes a pattern of intensive landscape modification that through the Neolithic becomes increasingly used to tie together settlements and surrounding fields by water channels. As discussed by Crawford (2011), such engineering of site environments could also produce opportunities for the preferred growth of certain plant species such as wild rice. Water control, too, is central to rice agriculture, and as the water-management systems of these channels were developed following the Pengtoushan culture period, they may have been critical in the domestication process for rice (see Fuller and Qin 2009). Following Bashidang, Middle Yangtze settlements increase in size, and the ditches become moats permanently filled with water. At 7400 cal BP, Chengtoushan’s moat is 15 m wide surrounding a circular 5-ha area. At 6850 cal BP, the Chengtoushan site expands again. A new embankment wall 10 m wide by 2 m high and a 2.2-m-deep moat are constructed. Moats such as this connected the settlements to extensive waterway networks, natural and man-made, leading to fields and neighboring settlements. Oars and other wooden boat parts are found. By the Late Neolithic, Chengtoushan reaches 8 ha in size (Pei 2006 [2004]:281–283). As the Chengtoushan settlement is expanding, paddy-field rice agriculture is developing at the site as well. The earliest paddy-field systems, with long rows of raised bunding demarcating fields of 2.7 m by 20+ m, belong to the Tangjiagang culture, with radiocarbon dates ca. 6300–6000 cal. BP (Fuller and Qin 2009:97; Hunan Chengtoushan 2007:164–167; Zhao 2010). By this period, the mode of subsistence can be called agricultural, here defined as having domesticated plants being grown in human-prepared fields.

The Lower Yangtze Early Neolithic

Shangshan and Xiaohuangshan

The Shangshan (Mao et al. 2008; Zhejiang Shangshan 2007) and Xiaohuangshan (Guo jia wen wu ju 2006) sites (Zhejiang) represent the earliest Early Neolithic culture found in the Lower Yangtze River region. A few radiocarbon determinations date the Shangshan site to 10,000–8500 cal BP (Zhejiang Shangshan 2007), while Xiaohuangshan’s estimated age is ca. 10,000/9000–8000/7000 cal BP (Guo jia wen wu ju 2006; Wang 2006). At Shangshan, associations and dates of its earliest features are still preliminary, and some may belong to the later Kuahuqiao and Hemudu culture phases. Both Shangshan and Xiaohuangshan have been interpreted as permanent settlements with a hunter-gatherer economy and early exploitation, perhaps cultivation, of rice (Guo jia wen wu ju 2006; Wang 2006; Zhao 2011). While the size and layout of Shangshan are not reported, within the 5-ha area of Xiaohuangshan are found three clusters of houses; it is also the largest Early Neolithic site in the south. Houses at both sites are rectangular and up to 14 m long, with some built on U-shaped foundation trenches and others, perhaps later in date, as pile dwellings (Jiang and Liu 2006). Like Pengtoushan, Xiaohuangshan burials are located about the edges of the settlement but are not clustered. Grave goods include a few pottery vessels, usually small flat-bottom basins with flared rims, ring-foot jars, or high-neck small-mouth jars. There are numerous pits within both settlements of various shapes but typically shallow—some with one or two pottery vessels or lithics—that may have been for burials or other ritual purposes. At Xiaohuangshan, there are many 1-m-diameter pits with straight walls and flat bottoms. The excavators believe they were used for stem tuber and nut storage (acorns are a common resource at later sites).

Shangshan sites have large amounts of pottery. At Xiaohuangshan, 1,000 pottery vessels could be reconstructed. The early-phase pottery can be grouped with Shangshan’s, where slab-molded or coil-made flat-bottom basins predominate (ca. 85%). As with Pengtoushan pottery, rice chaff, stalks, and leaves can be found in the sherd fabric—this tempering provides the rice evidence that is used in recent discussions of the state of rice domestication at the site (e.g., Liu, Lee, and Jiang 2007). However, the flat-bottom vessel forms at Shangshan sites are different from Early Neolithic sites in other regions and from later cultures in the Lower Yangtze, such as the Kuahuqiao and Hemudu, that instead feature round-bottom cauldrons and vessel stands (as does the Pengtoushan culture). No tripod vessels are found, either. Later-phase Shangshan pottery has more vessel forms and greater decorative elaboration, with everted-rim bowls, double-belly pedestal dishes, cordmarked egg-shaped cauldrons, and platters with a tall open-work ring foot (a new technique) all found. This formal differentiation continues into the later cultures in the region.

Shangshan and Xiaohuangshan, like Pengtoushan, retain the South China Late Paleolithic lithic assemblage, featuring mainly flakes with some retouch and cobble tools, stone balls, “digging stick weights,” and shallow “cupholes”: all are formed by percussion. Only a few adzes and chisels and a few grinding stones (up to 30–50 cm long) are found (Ren 2005; Sheng, Zheng, and Jiang 2006; Zhejiang Shangshan 2007).

Early Neolithic behavioral patterns are established in both the Pengtoushan and the Shangshan cultures, including agglomerated permanent settlements, house construction, heavy use of underground storage facilities, active human manipulation of the site environment, more highly developed pottery production and functional differentiation of forms, incipient use of axes and grinding stones, and increasingly intensive exploitation of the cereal rice (and other select plants, including future domesticates and acorns). In both cultures, these early village residents maintain a primarily hunting-fishing-gathering subsistence system. Although rice, which is most likely wild but possibly managed, has entered the diet, it appears to play a secondary role in nutritional intake. Yet these earliest villages may already have crossed a certain threshold and were on a pathway toward rice cultivation, domestication, and agriculture. We still lack data for understanding seasonality and subsistence patterns at these sites as well as models for how the Early Neolithic behavioral patterns are established. When the South China hunter-gatherer annual subsistence cycle came to incorporate wild rice, even in relatively small amounts, did this effect mobility patterns or allow year-round sedentism in these early villages? And how did the construction of villages affect the landscape and wild plant populations?


The Kuahuqiao site (Zhejiang), situated at the modern mouth of the Qiantang River, occupied 7900–7000 cal BP (Zhejiang Kuahuqiao 2004:225–227), shows the next stage in the development of the Early Neolithic in the Lower Yangtze region. The 3-ha settlement is heavily disturbed, but seven partial structures with new construction and woodworking techniques were excavated, including an ovular platform 1.6 m high and 10 m wide as well as rectangular foundations up to m (Zhejiang Kuahuqiao 2004:26–38). As in other settlements, numerous pits surround the structures, and some have their wooden covers preserved, indicating their use in storage. No burials are reported.

Kuahuqiao sat near coastal swamp marsh, and the inhabitants exploited a wide range of resources from the diverse rich environments surrounding the site. Fauna include sika deer, wild water buffalo, serow (Capricornis sumatraensis), alligator, turtle, waterfowl, various fish species, and dolphin. Deer, however, dominate the assemblage, as is typical in Neolithic cultures in the Yangtze and elsewhere (Yuan, Flad, and Luo 2008). The inhabitants also were probably managing plants and animals. Domesticated dog is present, and the small numbers of pigs present show decreased mandible length, indicating domestication (Yuan 2010).

The rice remains from Kuahuqiao are central in the current debate on rice domestication (e.g., Liu et al. 2007; Pan 2008). Kuahuqiao rice grains and phytoliths have been interpreted as being in a “primitive stage of domestication,” with 41.7% of the spikelet bases identified as japonica type (domesticated) and the remaining 58.3% as wild (Zhejiang Kuahuqiao 2004:375–376; Zheng, Sun, and Chen 2007). Fuller, Harvey, and Qin (2007) and Fuller, Qin, and Harvey (2008a) observe that Kuahuqiao rice, as well as later rice at Hemudu, has significant proportions of immature harvested spikelets (as does Bashidang rice). A harvesting pattern involving such high numbers of immature spikelets along with the split numbers between wild and japonica implies that the rice plants at Kuahuqiao were under cultivation. Furthermore, the low relative amounts of rice present at the site as a percentage of all plants would also indicate that this cultivated rice is still a supplementary resource behind collected wild nuts and acorns (Fuller et al. 2009). Other plant remains at Kuahuqiao include trapa (water chestnut), foxnuts, peach, and apricot.

Microcharcoal and pollen studies at Kuahuqiao show humans actively manipulating the coastal swamp environment around the site by clearing the wetland scrub through fire. This could have been part of managing natural stands of rice. Kuahuqiao residents also faced regular flooding by slightly brackish water, and the site may have been abandoned because of Holocene marine transgression. If people were planting rice or managing and protecting wild stands, the rice could have needed bunding and other forms of water management (Zong et al. 2007), or inhabitants may have carefully selected areas with advantageously fluctuating water levels to promote rice plant growth and grain production (Fuller and Qin 2009). While there is possibly stand management of rice and other plants at Kuahuqiao, the amount of human dependence on rice may still be limited. Fuller et al. (2009) suggest that domesticated rice (indicated by a higher percentage of fixed nonshattering phenotype rice present and increased representation of rice among all plant remains) appears after Kuahuqiao, during the Hemudu culture period, between 6900 and 6600 cal BP, as seen at the Tianluoshan site (Zhejiang; Zhao 2010; Zhejiang Tianluoshan 2007; Zheng et al. 2009).2 During this time period, in addition to an increasing percentage of nonshattering (domesticated) rice spikelets, rice consumption increases significantly as well, with rice remains jumping from 8% to 24% of total plant remains. Zheng et al. (2009) identify land clearing and tilling for rice fields at Tianluoshan, with many associated weeds as well.

Preserved organic remains at Kuahuqiao show a high level of development in woodworking, basketry, and other practices. A 5.6-m long-(partial) dug-out pine canoe and wooden oars give direct evidence of the importance of water transport in the Yangtze region. Bow and arrow are used, with a 121-cm-long mulberry bow preserved. Mortise and tenon joinery are in use to fashion timbers and to make ladders. There is also woven matting.

Pottery and lithics at Kuahuqiao show significant advancements over Shangshan’s. Iron-containing slips are used to produce red, gray, or black surfaces, and red and white patterns and abstract motifs are painted over the slip. In the Middle Yangtze, intricate geometric surface patterns occur during the same period in the Tangjiagang culture (7400–7200 cal BP), and the Daxi culture (6400–5500 cal BP) has similar painted pottery. The number of vessel forms increases over Shangshan, and the pottery is more finely made, with carefully formed rims, angled shoulders, and ring feet. There is also a considerable increase in serving vessels, such as pedestal serving stands (dou). The new decorative motifs and vessel forms represent not only technological improvements but also new roles for pottery in domestic activities (processing, cooking, serving, and storage), ritual, and social signaling. With Kuahuqiao, the majority of stone tools are now polished, including adzes, axes, chisels, arrow points, rollers, and grinding stones. There are also jade ornaments.

The Kuahuqiao cultural inventory signals the transition to the “Middle Neolithic” represented by the subsequent Hemudu culture in the Lower Yangtze region. During the Middle Neolithic, as seen at Tianluoshan after 6900 cal BP (Fuller et al. 2009), people are farming rice (i.e., they are growing domesticated plants in prepared fields). This early rice farming occurs within a broad-spectrum subsistence system based on waterside and aquatic plants, as Hemudu culture sites are found primarily in wetland catchments (Nakamura 2010; Qin, Fuller, and Hai 2010).

The subsequent development of more highly productive rice farming by means of the paddy-field system marks a major turning point in Neolithic societies. Soon after the appearance of paddy fields, we find hierarchical settlement patterns, higher population densities, increasing specialization of labor, increasingly greater internal social status differentiation, and greater accumulation of wealth and disposal of wealth in ritual (see Zhang 2003; Zhang and Hung 2008). The earliest paddy fields in the Lower Yangtze, found east of Lake Taihu in the late Majiabang culture (6300–6000 cal BP) sites of Caoxieshan and Chuodun , are contemporaneous with the earliest paddies in the Middle Yangtze at Chengtoushan. The Majiabang paddy fields consist of small dug-out units connected by small water channels, with water reservoir pits from which stored water could be fed into the system. This system of small paddies allows tight control of the water level in all units, which is essential to raising the productivity of the rice plants (Fuller and Qin 2009). With the advent of paddy fields and the concomitant demographic and organizational changes in societies that follow, rice farming “gains legs” and disperses quickly and widely. Rice farming reaches to southernmost China (the Shixia site, Guangdong), over water to Taiwan and beyond in the Austronesian dispersal, and northward into the Middle and Lower Yellow River basin and possibly Korea, all by 5000 cal BP (see Bellwood 2006, 2011; Fuller and Qin 2009:101 and references therein; Lee 2011; Ruddiman et al. 2008; Zhang and Hung 2010).


Early Neolithic villages emerge shortly following the Younger Dryas period of climatic stress, and the role of climate change needs to be revisited (Bar-Yosef 2011). Unfortunately, we are missing critical data for the period of the establishment of these villages, and future work should focus on this. The role of pottery also needs further consideration. While pottery was already in use for over 8 millennia, once sedentary villages appear, it immediately takes on prominent new roles in food preparation, serving, storage, ritual, and social signaling. As outlined above, we have only recently come to understand that these first sedentary villages are not synonymous with the presence of full-scale farming. Village settlements emerge in China before cultivated plants make a significant contribution to diet and several millennia before agriculture systems with domesticated plants and prepared fields are in place. Instead, many of the earliest Early Neolithic villages still rely primarily on hunting-fishing-gathering. Adaptations involving the exploitation of wild resources were able to trigger and support sedentism, population growth and agglomeration, and the other cultural changes that mark the Early Neolithic, including pottery elaboration, house construction, ditch building, and new ritual activities (indicated by caches, platforms, cemeteries, etc.) that all can be related to new ideological conceptions of social grouping and territoriality. In China, the Neolithic did not require farming at its start.

During the Early Neolithic across the four cultural areas discussed above, we see the sharing of specific material culture traits and parallel developments on the road to agriculture. Information exchange is hinted at typologically in shared pottery, lithics, house forms, spatial organization of settlements, burial practices, subsistence practices, and ritual activities. I posit here that Early Neolithic cultures emerged and developed—and the farming of millet and of rice was invented and spread—within wide-ranging webs of information exchange and broad social exchange networks whose roots are in the interactions of Late Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies (Cohen 2003). None of these regions was geographically or culturally isolated from others. Because of this, it is unlikely that there could have been multiple independent inventions of major classes of material culture such as the shared pottery vessel forms. Indeed, the long, complex developmental pathways in each of these regions for millet and for rice farming, from cultivation through domestication and agriculture, would have occurred with information exchange from other regions—regions that contemporaneously were going through parallel processes. In other words, the advent of agriculture did not result from independent isolated processes in each region.

To accept this scenario, when looking at the origins of both millet and rice agriculture, we still need to consider how or even whether knowledge of a millet-centered dryland or a rice-centered wetland system could drive the development of the other. Could the particular steps in the development of agriculture centered on one species “jump” across to the other species, when rice and millet have biological requirements that are so different? This is a question for future consideration. To answer it, we need a better appreciation of the many steps involved. At present, we do not have enough archaeological and paleoethnobotanical data to establish the basic steps in the development of agriculture within each region or the chronological control to properly order them across regions. One possibility is that agriculture, the end product of a 3-millennia process in each region, may be an admixture of small steps coming from different regional sources over this lengthy time period: a new development in one region could be related to a previous development in another region and onward across regions. Such a possibility needs consideration because we already have good evidence for the boundaries of a material culture system—the Peiligang culture—extending across the boundary between where human groups were exploiting rice on one side and millet on the other, as at Jiahu, a site whose material culture classifies well within the millet-exploiting Peiligang cultural sphere but that has no millet, only rice. The stage is set for better understanding the lengthy and likely interrelated processes leading to the development of millet- and rice-based agricultural systems in Northeast China, North China, and the Middle and Lower Yangtze regions. An interregional perspective can guide the gathering of new data to help answer the many questions we still have.

Chinese and Japanese Characters

In the “References Cited” below, Chinese and Japanese titles and author names are romanized. The full reference list with Chinese and Japanese characters included is available as a PDF.


David Joel Cohen is Adjunct Assistant Professor, International Center for East Asian Archaeology and Cultural History, Department of Archaeology, Boston University (650 Beacon Street, 5th Floor, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, U.S.A. []).

1. Below, the lowercase terms “the north” and “northern China” are used to refer jointly to the North China and Northeast China regions.

2. Hemudu (Zhejiang Hemudu 2003)—the Hemudu culture typesite—and Tianluoshan are both waterlogged sites with excellent preservation. As a Middle Neolithic culture, the Hemudu culture features a more highly diversified pottery assemblage with a rich iconography of plant and animal decorative elements; lacquerware vessels; bone and stone tools associated with farming such as scapula spades; ivory objects, ornamental stone, and jade objects; large, raised-pile dwellings; and wood-framed wells. Hemudu was excavated in the early 1970s, but the current Tianluoshan excavations now incorporate systematic sampling, waterscreening, and flotation. As Zhao (2011) notes, preliminary results show that although rice agriculture is taking place, hunting-gathering is still making a major contribution to subsistence. One focus at Tianluoshan is acorns and nuts, as we have seen indications for at the earlier sites as well.

References Cited

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