Linguistic homeland for rice?
The new article on "the ethnolinguistic identity of the domesticators of Asian rice" has been published linguist George Van Driem, one of the foremost experts of Himilayan languages many highly obscure and dwindling, especially of the Tibeto-Burman language family has made numerous stabs at the contentious prize of correlating rice agricultural dispersal with historical linguistics, and its inferred history of population movements. In general it provides useful overview of the Austroastiatic and Hmong-Mien reconstruction relating rice and arguments about the homelands of these reconstructed proto-languages. Most archaeologists are probably more familiar with the hypotheses of Peter Bellwood and Charles Higham focused mainly on the Austronesian and Austroasiatic languages in Southeast Asia. (For two recent summary papers by Bellwood, from 2011, see Current Anthropology and the journal Rice). However, there has been considerable recent debate over how Sino-Tibetan (or Tibeto-Burman) languages fit in. The French Linguist Laurent Sagart, an the the instigator of a recent Cornell conference on the rice and language, has argued in recent years for a shared ancestry of Sino-Tibetan and Austronesian, with an outward migration of rice and millet (Setaria) farmers from central-Eastern China. Van Driem tends to have more of an emphasis on Southwest China through Assam/Burma as a focal area, although he also postulates southwards migrations of early Hmong-Mien speakers-- likely domesticators of rice (perhaps along the Middle Yangtze). Domestication of rice by Austroasiatic speakers could have been separate although he seems to tend towards wanting a single origin. As for these Austroasiatic domesticators he places them somewhere like Assam-- "the Northern Bay of Bengal littoral" (but I presume he does not intend of coastally adapted culture?). In this article Van Driem points to the recent Molina paper as simplifying matters of rice origins, allowing for early cultivation in India to be dismissed. In general the Molina paper and the earlier Londo et al (2006) map are used to suggest a northern Southeast Asia/NE Indian focus for rice domestication, while archaeology is cited mainly for failure to have worked in the required areas. While I would be the first to argue that we need archaeobotanical sampling across Southern China, Burma and Assam I think this paper put too much stock on modern time place samples (languages and genes) and lacks a full engagement with the material constraints that archaeology already provides-- good dates for a domestication process in the Yangtze, good dates for when cereal agriculture, fully formed, arrived in Thailand or Sichuan (e.g. recent blog). These make a dispersal into the Yangtze from a single origin elsewhere impossible, and a dispersal of early rice use into India unlikely (although later introduction of domestication genes is another matter). I do regard as plausible, even likely that there was a separate domestication pathway in the unsampled area, perhaps associated with Austroasiatic, but this must have been in addition to what was happening in the Yangtze and the Ganges. There is a likelihood to would related to the aus-rices-- a group not incorporated in the Molina et al model.
Maps based on modern/recent distributions are a recurrent weakness in the paper. Modern wild rices, like those mapped following Londo et al (or Sampled by Molina et al) are of course biased towards the more tropical South as wild rices are not extant in most of the Yangtze nor in eastern China, but this is a product of environmental change both climatic and anthropogenic-- the extirpated wild rices of the Lower Yangtze, Huai, southern Shandong are of course missing from modern sampling, but archaeobotany has the potential (and is) putting this on the map. Much of the paper considers the linguistic paleontology for the homeland of Austroasiatic, in the case of the latter providing a series of maps of fauna that reconstruct to Proto-Austroasiatic, which point towards a southeast Asian (or Southernmost China) distribution. While these provide an important starting point they are also biased towards modern geography rather than early/middle Holocene geography. To take two examples consider water buffalo and elephants, both mapped as going as far north as southern fringes of the Yangtze. But both are species that we know used to range into and north of the Yellow River valley at least through the Bronze Age (i.e. until perhaps 1500-1000BC). Hoffpauir's (2000) excellent chapter on the Water Buffalo in the Cambridge World History of Food provides a good map while a more schematic map occurs in my 2007 paper on non-human genetics, agricultural origins and linguistics in South Asia [pdf]. As for the elephant its former northern occurrence apparently even for Shang royal elephant hunts, provides the leitmotif and title for an excellent long-term environmental history of China,
Mark Elvin's The Retreat of the Elephants. Compare Van Driem's map (top/left) and Elvin's retreat map (lower/right)
As for the genetic single origin (of Molina et al.)
. . .
My own working hypotheses on how rice phylogenetics and especially historical linguistics can be fit together within the framework of evidential constraints provided by archaeobotanical evidence, should be published soon in a special issue of the journal Rice [on-line here] arising from the Cornell conference....let the discussion continue and may it inspire new archaeobotanical sampling and genetic modelling.