Friday, 13 January 2012

More contributions on rice, linguistics and genetics

More papers from the Cornell meeting on rice, linguistics and cultural spread continue to come out on-line. This includes my own attempt ("Pathways to Asian Civilizations") to integrate historical linguistics hypotheses, current archaeobotany and recent genetics (including some considerations of issues blogged a few weeks ago).

Perhaps more importantly it includes a updated  assessment of the comparative lingusitics of rice vocabularies by the CNRS linguist Laurent Sagart, who favours an early historical linkage between Sino-Tibetan and Austronesia: for him this relationship is genetic but I wonder whether an early situation on contacts and loans (including millet and rice) makes more sense? An earlier study by Blench collecting rice vocabulary, published in 2008 [available here],  deserves to be considered alongside this paper for its extensive tables across several language families. There is updated overview by Peter Bellwood of his language/farming dispersal hypothesis in its Island Southeast Asian hearth, which includes some important new revisions (such as an early migration eastwards to micronesia and shift in line of newer views of Chinese rice domestication as being later). A rice-driven spread of rice through Indonesia looks less and less plausible, and even though there was some early (late 3rd Millennium BC?) from a few sites it may never have really taken hold: i.e. there was a failed "revolution" in grain culture. In a forthcoming article by Huw Barton on the rice versus sago in Borneo, he makes the case that "Rice appears to be an illogical crop choice in the rainforests of Borneo" by comparison to the higher yielding forest staple Sago (see his yield estimates chart below). Serious and persistence rice agriculture may be much more recent (although I guess before the Malay period when rice was moved from this region to Madagascar).

In relation to Austronesian origins, there is also a paper on rice in Taiwan, which mainly reports some genetic data on local land-races, but also provides the best illustrations yet of some archaeobotanical evidence from the site of Nankuanli (including rice and foxtail millet).

There are also some papers of a more palaeoenvironmental flavour on rice. Quaternary International has a second special issue on "Agricultural activities and rice cultivation in East Asia [Part 2]" coming out. Judging from the editorial, we can expect several pollen  studies from around East and northeast Asia which detect human farming impacts on vegetation, but little that is likely to change views on the origins and spread of rice, nor on archaeobotany. Part 1 was an issue in late 2010, had a few highlights, such as expanded data and discussion of the vegetation, vegetation burning in relation to the early cultivation site of Kuahuqiao (Shu et al), and Li et al's  palynological assessment of vegetation and forests during the Liangzhu period-- worth looking at alongside Fuller & Qin's Environmental Archaeology paper on the environmental context of rice (Dec. 2010). Although it should be noted that Li et al repeat some old mis-identifications from Qianshanyang repeated by non-botanical archaeologists in 1960! Notably "peanut" (introduced via Europeans in the 16th century, see the classic study by Ho 1955) and sesame (probably not older than the Han dynasty: see Fuller 2003)-- the latter certainly is melon (Cucumis melo) which is widely encountered. It pains me to see wrong and unreliable identifications repeated....

More important still is an on-line article by Gary Crawford "Early rice exploitation in the Lower Yangzi: what are we missing?" for a forthcoming issue of The Holocene also on early rice and palaeoenvironment (that I expect to also be an issue that is mainly palynological and sedimentological). It is a thoughtful and provocative paper, partly meant to update Crawford and Shen (1998) and partly meant to be critical of recent work in the Lower Yangtze (including mine), with extended discussions of the issue of immature grains and spikelet base criteria (but without any substantive new suggestions)-- true these criteria are not as straight forward as an either or division, but they still work pretty clearly for characterizing the big trends and transitions. He also summarizes in English a new Chinese proposal (by Gu and Zhao) for morphometric formulae for determining from grain measurements the percentage of rice that was wild or domesticated (although I expect the reliability of such an over-precise formula is dubious). He muddies the definition of "domestication" somewhat by taking a catholic list of "DRT" (domestication-related traits) from the genetics literature-- some of which have little to do with basic crop origins at the beginnings of agriculture, despite their appeal to breeders or the importance in some cultures (like waxiness or white grains). This article includes important critical comments on alleged Pleistocene claims for wild rice, whether from the South China see or Yuchanyan

One of Crawford's main points is to emphasize that we must understand more than rice, that rice "casts a long shadow" on consideration of other resources. (I fully agree, this was the starting point for my original Hemudu critiques [2007, 2008], that 1000s of acorns should not be ignored). He argues consider landscape management for taxa such as oaks and peaches, points I would certainly agree with. He pushes for nut-managers or niche constructors, while characterizing my interpretation as one of "nut-gatherers who became cultivators", which failed to consider other "crops". Perhaps there was management for nuts like acorns (which I suggested in Fuller&Qin 2009), but the problem is that we are hard pressed to see any evidence for this. And if landscapes were managed for nuts (likely to at least some degree) I doubt whether this can be seen as somehow fundamentally different in the Holocene from the kinds of practices that characterized early modern humans in the later Pleistocene (as argued in Fuller, Willcox and Allaby in World Archaeology), since they knew how to manage vegetation through burning and to plant and transplant if desired (as indicated by bottlegourds that must have been cultivated since the Pleistocene beyond Africa) rice cultivation is fundamentally different-- the management for habitats for annual plants rather than landscapes of perennials. A key shift in rice is from perennial ancestors to more productive annuals, a point he touches on as well. And the creation of rice cultivation systems that could select for this and for domestication traits like non-shattering was fundamentally different in outcome and commitment than whatever landscape and tree management that had come before. 

Crawford flirts with the Hayden hypothesis that rice cultivation developed because rice was the first luxury food. While the prestige of risking labour in rice probably is relevant to many cases of secondary adoption, as Huw Barton suggests for rice cultivation in sago-rich Borneo, I am less convinces this is true for the for the sparse early Holocene/terminal Pleistocene Neolithic of Yangtze China. Instead domesticated rice, and its intensified use (from ca. 4500-4000 BC onwards) correlated with material culture evidence from craft specialization and artefactual prestige-goods (see Fuller and Qin 2010). Hayden's speculation (in the recent volume edited by Barker & Jakowski) would be that competitive feasting and prestige battles are there to be found and we just need to keep looking (perhaps in submerged coastal areas which Crawford suggests may hold many secrets). I prefer to focus on the evidence we do have rather than speculate about what is under the sea or alluvium.  Domesticated rice, in the morphological sense, was later than had long been assumed, and created new opportunities for wealth production and demography: it was a game changer, at least in its native Yangtze heartland. Morphological domestication and how rice was cultivated is not an unimportant detail, but central to understanding a major economic and landscape transition which made later Neolithic societies onwards fundamentally different from those that had existed for much longer before in the Early Holocene or Pleistocene... In any case, clearly a paper that deserves reading and thinking about.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i think variety of rice should be consider. it understood in Borneo different variety of rice is planted dependent on the soil type, weather and rainfall. Not all tribes in borneo consume sago for staple food.
Minimum you will have 20 varieties and on top of that 70 varieties rice of rice.