Domestication and Agriculture in southern China

The Yangtze Valley in central China is widely regarded by archaeologists, palaeobotanists and plant geneticists as the location of the earliest cultivation of Asian rice. A previous article (Zhang & Hung 2008a) outlined Neolithic cultural developments related to the establishment of food production in the Middle and Lower Yangtze Valley from 10,000 to 2000 BC (14C-calibrated chronology). The Pengtoushan-Zaoshi and Shangshan-Kuahuqiao phases (8000-5000 BC), in the Middle and Lower Yangtze Valley respectively, have provided evidence for very early pre-domestication rice production, possible pig domestication, and pottery spindle whorls that imply utilisation of plant fibres. Considerable quantities of rice husk and grains have been recovered from these sites. After 5000 BC, farming settlements associated with the pivotal Daxi, Shinianshan, Beiyinyangin-Xuejiagang, Hemudu and Majiabang-Songze site complexes (5000-3500 BC) spread gradually throughout the Middle and Lower Yangtze Valley. Enclosed rice fields have been exposed in some Lower Yangtze Majiabang-Songze sites, such as Caoxieshan. Later in time, the two Longshan-phase site complexes represented by Qujialing-Shijiahe and Liangzhu (3000-2300 BC), in the Middle and Lower Yangtze Valley respectively, saw the establishment of large-scale wet rice cultivation.

c2 Figure 1

It has been suggested that the southward dispersal of rice agriculture from the Yangtze Valley was perhaps related to the expansions of Austroasiatic- and Austronesian-speaking populations into Mainland and Island Southeast Asia respectively. If so, then southern China, between the Yangtze Basin and northern Mainland Southeast Asia, must have played a significant role in the spread of rice farming. However, due to the rarity of reported rice remains and reliable 14C dates, the question of agricultural development in southern China proper, south of the Yangtze Basin, remains poorly understood. We have previously suggested that the process of agricultural dispersal in China was not a singular event. To illustrate this, we focus here on recent discoveries from the regions of Lingnan-Fujian-Taiwan (Lingnan includes the provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong) and south-west China (Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces).

Coastal south-eastern China and Taiwan

New evidence for ancient rice cultivation has been reported from south-eastern China, with the oldest sites in Fujian, Taiwan and Guangdong (Figure 1). Here, rice remains can be confidently dated to 3000 BC, whereas dates for many other sites are clustered around 2500 BC.

Guangdong (Figure 1, sites 5, 6, 7 and 8)

In the 1970s, a large quantity of rice grains and stalks from the lower and middle layers
at Shixia in northern Guangdong (c. 2600-2300 BC) were claimed to be of cultivated rice. More recently, four new discoveries of older rice remains have occurred in Guangdong. These come from the pre-Shixia phase at Shixia itself, from Shaxia in Hong Kong, from Guye in Gaoming on the Lower Xi River, and from Xinghuahe on the Upper Xi River.

There are varied opinions* on the date of the oldest rice remains at Shixia.

*(c. 4800 BC, or c. 5000-3500/3000 BC, or c. 3500 to 2200 BC, or c. 2500 BC)

Fujian and Taiwan (Figure 1, sites 9, 10, 11 and 12)

In Fujian, the oldest rice remains have been found at Tanshishan and have been carbon-dated to 2870-2340 cal BC. Other remains are reported from younger sites such as Huangguashan and Nanshan. The earliest carbonised rice grains in Taiwan come from the late Dabenkeng phase sites of Nanguanli and Nanguanlidong, located in the Tainan Science Park in southern Taiwan. These have been dated to 2700-2200 cal BC and are here found with foxtail millet and beans of an unknown species.

South-west China

Guangxi (Figure 1, sites 13, 14 and 15)

The rice phytoliths from Dingsishan phase 4 (the uppermost phase in the site), in southern Guangxi, are currently regarded as the earliest from archaeological contexts in this region. Despite the claim by Zhao (2006) that Dingsishan phase 4 dates from 4500 BC, the phase 4 pottery is different from that of the preceding phases in the site and resembles that of the Longshan phase in Wuming, believed to date to 2500-2000 BC.

Xiaojin, in northern Guangxi, has also produced rice remains. This site has three cultural phases, with no agricultural evidence from the oldest (phase 1), but a large quantity of rice grains from phase 2. There is a most confusing series of 14C dates: phase 1, 2900-2000, 2500-1600 and 2900-1950 cal BC; and phase 2, 2750-1900, 2150-1400, 2900-2200, 5300-1400 and 4000-2900 cal BC. These are not consistent with the stratification but, according to our stylistic comparisons of ground stone projectile points, the triangular specimens of Xiaojin phase 2 should postdate the Shijiahe culture in the Middle Yangtze Valley and thus date to c. 2500-2000 BC.

Gantuoyan, in western Guangxi, has also produced carbonised rice and millet grains from a late stage of phase 2 in the site sequence. Two direct AMS 14C dates on the rice are 1920-1660 and 1220-920 cal BC, and one on millet is 1510-1290 cal BC. Through a comparative study of the pottery, the excavators suggest that Gantuoyan 2 was contemporary with the late Shang dynasty.

Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan (Figure 1, sites 16, 17, 18 and 19)

In south-western China, the earliest evidence for agriculture comes from north-western Sichuan, associated with Yangshao expansion during the Miaodigou and Majiayao phases, c. 3000 BC. It is possible that dry land millet cultivation was brought to Sichuan by these Yangshao groups, and carbonised grains of millet Setaria italica (L.) P. Beauv. from Karuo in Changdu County, Tibet (Figure 1, site 20), are dated by multiple 14C determinations to c. 3500 to 2500 BC. Rice remains have also been found in Yangshao contexts in eastern Gansu and Shanxi, both north of Sichuan. As far as the Middle Yangtze Valley in Sichuan is concerned, the oldest evidence for rice cultivation comes from the Chengdu Plain during the Baoduncun phase (2500-2000 BC).

In Guizhou, the earliest excavated evidence for a presence of rice comes from Jigongshan in Weining County, contemporary with the late Shang dynasty. In Yunnan, the earliest rice remains belong to the Shizhaishan Neolithic phase in the Lake Dian region, dated to 3100-2450 cal BC at Haidong. Rice remains from Baiyangcun in Binchuan are dated to c. 2500-2000 BC, but the rice from Dadunzi in Yuanmou County is younger. Therefore, the appearance of rice cultivation in Guangxi, Yunnan and Guizhou appears to postdate 2500 BC.

c3.png Figure 2

Cultural relations between southern China and the Yangtze Valley

Across such a broad region, the appearance of rice cultivation was probably not a single event. The dates from Fujian and Guangdong in south-eastern China (Figure 2: zone H) extend back to 3000 BC, contemporary with the Qujialing–Early Shijiahe phases in the Middle Yangtze, and the Early–Middle Liangzhu in the Lower Yangtze (zones C and A). But the evidence in Guangxi, Yunnan and Guizhou (zone F) is slightly younger, after 2500 BC, and contemporary with the Middle Shijiahe in the Middle Yangtze and Final Liangzhu in the Lower Yangtze.

From the early Neolithic onwards, Chinese archaeologists divide cultural developments in southern China into two regional traditions – Fujian with Guangdong (including the southern offshore islands) (zone H) and Guangxi with northern Vietnam (zone F). In the early and middle Neolithic, Guangxi was occupied by apparent hunter-gatherers (in the absence of any evidence for food production) of the Dingsishan (phases 1 to 3) culture, with pottery and ground lithic technology that would elsewhere be termed ‘Neolithic’. Chinese archaeologists assume that this culture was indigenous to the region, and reliant on gathering, freshwater fishing and hunting. Most Dingsishan culture sites are shell middens with simple cord-marked and paddle impressed pottery vessels and polished stone tools.

Sites related to Dingsishan phases 1 to 3 occur around Nanning in southern Guangxi, mostly along the Zuo, You and Yong rivers.

In northern Vietnam, similar forager groups existed in Thanh Hoa province, associated especially with the Da But culture of Vietnamese archaeology. Human burials of these phases, both in Guangxi and northern Vietnam, are in crouched and seated postures. Higham (1996: 78) notes that the Da But sites have no certain traces of agriculture.

Four 14C dates from Nanshanwan phase 1 are considered to represent the terminus ante quem of the Dingsishan (phases 1 to 3) culture. These are 4800-3600, 5350-4650 and 5800-5200 cal BC on animal bone and 8250-7550 cal BC on freshwater shell, suggesting a termination of the Dingsishan culture around 4000-3500 BC. Although many Dingsishan sites are located in zones favourable for rice farming, such as the Xi Valley, no rice macroremains or phytoliths have ever been reported.

In Guangdong and Fujian, unlike Guangxi, there is so far no identifiably indigenous pre-farming culture related to Dingsishan phases 1 to 3. The earliest pottery-bearing assemblage in Guangdong is the intrusive Xiantouling culture (zone H), dated to c. 5000-3500/3000 BC, which has more complex lithics and pottery styles than Dingsishan phases 1 to 3. Although the subsistence pattern of Xiantouling is uncertain, most sites are located on sand dunes along the edges of the Zhu Estuary. This suggests a maritime forager group in terms of economic strategy.

Xiantouling was not a direct descendant of the rice-growing nuclear Daxi culture located in the Two Lakes region of the Middle Yangtze Basin, but rather of the Gaomiao-Songxikou-Daxi facies in the Nanling Mountains of southern Hunan, the latter with no evidence for cultivation of rice. In addition, the Xiantouling culture sites in Guangdong and Hong Kong have a fabric tradition emphasising the use of barkcloth, beaten with distinctive grooved beaters, rather than of textile fibres as spun with spindle whorls by the rice-growing societies of the Middle Yangtze.

Until as recently as 4000 BC, none of the shell middens along the coastlines of Guangdong and Guangxi, such as Fangcheng, Qinzhou and Chaoan, have any remains of potentially cultivated plants. Neither, as yet, have the earliest Neolithic assemblages along the coastlines of Fujian and Taiwan, namely the Keqiutou and early Dabenkeng (pre-Nanguanli) cultures respectively.

The earliest Neolithic in Guangdong and Fujian (zone H) can be sourced to the region between the Nanling Mountains and the Yangtze, especially to the Gaomiao-Songxikou-Daxi and the non-agricultural facies of the Daxi (Exi facies) of the Middle Yangtze. The Gaomiao-Songxikou-Daxi and Exi facies developed from the initial agricultural societies in these regions, such as Pengtoushan-Zaoshi and Chengbeixi. Rice phytoliths are not identified in Gaomiao until the Qujialing phase, after 3500 BC.

Therefore, the earliest Neolithic in Guangdong and Fujian (zone H) was exotic but by contrast the earliest Neolithic in Guangxi (zone F) was seemingly indigenous, developed directly from the local Zengpiyan and Dayan early Holocene pebble and flake tool complexes.

Hunting-gathering subsistence continued in Fujian-Guangdong until 3500-3000 BC and in Guangxi until 4000-3500 BC. Also of significance was the subsequent decline in Neolithic southern China of hunting-gathering subsistence, in terms of diminishing frequencies of wild animal bones and shellfish. In Fujian, this decline followed the Keqiutou phase. A similar decline occurred in coastal Guangdong and also in the Yuan River and Xia-Jiang regions along the Yangtze. One possibility is that this decline reflected a climatic fluctuation, but we cannot be sure since it could also reflect increasing use of domesticated resources for subsistence.

After 8000 BC, considerable quantities of rice are present in many settlements in the Middle–Lower Yangtze Valley. Why did rice cultivation not reach the Lingnan-Fujian region until 3000 BC? To answer this question, we must consider the development of agriculture in the Yangtze Basin itself, and review the local cultural background in southern China. In the early stages of agriculture in the Middle–Lower Yangtze, rice did not account for a high proportion of production, and full morphological domestication did not occur until after 5000 BC. In some instances, such as Gaomiao, there even appears to have been fluctuation between hunting-gathering and agriculture. Farmers gradually extended their settlements into the uncultivated areas along the tributaries of the Yangtze.

By about 3000 BC, cultivation of domesticated rice became a major subsistence activity, and plough cultivation appeared in the Liangzhu sites (zone A). Population densities increased during the Middle–Late Liangzhu and Early–Middle Shijiahe phases. At the same time, the Zhangsidun and Fanchengdui cultures (zone B) between the Middle and Lower Yangtze started to expand southwards. The Tanshishan culture in Fujian and the Shixia in Guangdong (zone H) both contain many Liangzhu and Fanchengdui cultural traits, such as pottery ding with feet shaped like fish fins, hu, and jade cong and yue. This was the earliest phase of rice cultivation in Fujian and Guangdong.

The emergence of rice cultivation in Guangxi resulted from a separate and more inland southward dispersal from the Quijialing culture (zone C) in the Middle Yangtze Valley, via the middle Yuan River and Xiajiang regions with their forager groups. Rice cultivation was thus transmitted from Quijialing into Guangxi and Sichuan a little later in time than into Fujian–Guandong.


Rice cultivation was introduced into southern China around 3000-2500 BC from the Middle and Lower Yangtze Valley, possibly earlier in coastal regions. Separate coastal and inland routes of expansion are suggested into Fujian-Guangdong and Guangxi respectively, and it is likely that each area underwent a separate process of introduction. In south-west China, agriculture occurred in Sichuan c. 3000 BC and then spread into Guizhou and Yunnan c. 2500 BC. The dispersal of rice agriculture was thus not a single event. In the early stage, before 3000 BC, dispersal was slow, even involving periodic returns to non-agricultural subsistence with a heavy emphasis on fishing and hunting in areas marginal to the main Yangtze Basin, such as the Middle Yuan and Xia-Jiang regions. But once the Yangtze agricultural systems became highly developed with domesticated and transportable crops and animals, rice cultivation spread very quickly. The process of southward dispersal carried not only the knowledge and technology of rice cultivation, but also considerable human population. Because of the consequent growth of farming populations in southern China after 2500 BC, the Neolithic cultures of Lingnan-Fujian and south-west China spread rapidly into Southeast Asia.

(Source: “The emergence of agriculture in southern China”, by Zhang Chi & Hsiao-chun Hung)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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