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A New Look at Agriculture in Ancient China

University of Chicago Press Journals

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IMAGE: Expansion of agriculture into environmental zones previously favoring foraging or vegeculture/mixed subsistence with growing population density. view more 

Credit: Shengqian Chen, Pei-Lin Yu

The origins of agriculture in ancient China have fascinated anthropologists for decades. Now, two related papers about the earliest agriculture in China take advantage of recent growth of scientific discoveries to undertake a large-scale analysis of the cultural evolutionary processes that shaped early Chinese agriculture. Some of the data are presented in English for the first time.

In the first paper, researchers Shengqian Chen (Renmin University of China) and Pei-Lin Yu (Boise State University) examine a broad range of early Neolithic archaeological evidence including diagnostic artifacts, settlement locations, site structure, and biological remains in order explore agriculture as a system-level adaptive phenomenon derived from local foraging societies.

Early Neolithic sites of North China and the middle Yangzi River Basin present echoes of a foraging past in the persistence of hunting-related artifacts in the northern regions, and aquatic-based intensification and root vegeculture in the south.

Projections from Lewis Binford's worldwide forager database indicate that agriculture was predictably developed or adopted according to the conditions of local habitats that influenced diet breadth.

On this basis, the second paper highlights recent archaeological and paleobiological discoveries relating to the Paleolithic to Neolithic transition (PNT), and develops hypotheses for the last foraging and first farming societies in China.

In both North China and the Yangtze River Basin, semi-sedentism and seasonal foraging persisted alongside recognizably Neolithic traits like organized villages, storage structures, pottery, and polished stone tools. Thus, incipient agriculture is viewed as a predictable, system-level cultural response to variations in the relationship of foraging groups to changing resources in varied habitats.

Ultimately, the researchers conclude that the Paleolithic-Neolithic transition followed multiple evolutionary pathways that diverged according to habitat characteristics of China's highly varied regional geography, water, plants, and animals. In resource-poor habitats where intensification of wild plant use was a necessity, the transition to agriculture proceeded more rapidly as a way to minimize foraging subsistence risk. Habitats that allowed populations to more easily survive using traditional hunting and gathering methods transitioned more slowly.

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The Journal of Anthropological Research publishes diverse, peer-reviewed articles on anthropological research of substance and broad significance, as well as about 100 timely book reviews annually. The journal reaches out to anthropologists of all specialties and theoretical perspectives both in the United States and around the world, with special emphasis given to the detailed presentation and rigorous analysis of primary research.

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