Agriculture in China appears to predate the farming of rice, according to new findings from archeologists scouring China's southern region of Xincun. This new discovery may overturn many ideas about how people lived in the area thousands of years ago.
According to new research conducted on stone tools recovered from roughly 3000 BC, people in the region may have been practicing formal agriculture even back in that distant epoch, but it was not on rice. It was previously believed that agriculture in that sub-tropical region was minimal before the introduction of domesticated rice centuries later.
The study involved carefully removing samples of organic material from the scratches and pits present in ancient stone tools. When these samples were carefully examined, the surprising results were revealed. Analysis showed that the ancient people there were eating tropical palms as part of their diet. They likely smashed the starch-rich material into a pulp, then dried it into a flour.
"Our research shows that there was something much more interesting going on in the subtropical south of China 5,000 years ago than we had first thought," Huw Barton, from the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester, said.
Although most cultures that regularly eat palms are usually mobile, the sedentary nature of the people in this area at that time implies that the palms were purposely grown there, using the tools of formal agriculture. This significantly pushes back the date that agriculture is believed to have arrived in the area, shedding light on ideas surrounding that time and place more than 150 generations in the past.
Barton conducted the study in conjunction with Dr. Xiaoyan Yang, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. It was in Dr. Yang's laboratory that the analysis on the grindstones and other ancient tools was conducted.
"We have used a relatively new method known as ancient starch analysis to analyze [the] ancient human diet. This technique can tell us things about human diet in the past that no other method can," Barton said.
Archeological studies in the area are challenging, as the region is poor at preserving ancient artifacts.