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Earliest Rice June 11, 1997
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

Rice cultivation began in China ca. 11,500 years ago, some 3,500 years earlier than previously believed, according to Chinese and Japanese archaeologists who studied 125 samples of rice grains, husks, plant remains, and grain impressions in pottery excavated from more than 100 sites along the Yangtze River. The oldest specimens were from sites on the middle Yangtze in Hubei and Hunan provinces, while samples from both upstream and downstream were dated between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago. Syuichi Toyama, an environmental archaeologist at Japan's Kogakukan University, says the evidence suggests rice cultivation began in the middle Yangtze and spread from there.

The new dates also show that rice cultivation preceded millet farming in northern China, which began 7,500 to 7,200 years ago, and may even predate 10,000-year-old evidence of barley cultivation from Netiv Hagdud in Israel. Bruce Smith of the Smithsonian Institution advises caution on the Yangtze rice dates, however, since no morphological studies have been done to determine whether the grain was domesticated. Such rice, he says, has larger seeds than wild varieties and a stronger rachis, or spine, for holding the grains.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America