Starch granules on Neolithic tools resemble those of sago palms, bananas, tubers
Before rice cultivation became prevalent, ancient populations on the southern coast of China likely relied on sago palms as staple plant foods, according to research published May 8 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Xiaoyan Yang and colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, China.
Little is known about prehistoric diets of those who lived in southern subtropical China, as the acidic soils and humid climate of the region cause poor preservation of plant remains. Though literature and archaeological discoveries have suggested that roots and tubers were the staple foods in this region, no direct evidence has so far been found. In this study, researchers analyzed starch granules recovered from Neolithic stone tools used approximately 3,350-2,470 BC, and found these to resemble starches typically found in sago-type palms. They found that people at this time also likely relied on bananas, acorns and freshwater roots and tubers as important plant foods prior to the cultivation of rice.
May 8, 2013
Below is an excerpt from the original research article published on PLOS one:
Poor preservation of plant macroremains in the acid soils of southern subtropical China has hampered understanding of prehistoric diets in the region and of the spread of domesticated rice southwards from the Yangtze River region. According to records in ancient books and archaeological discoveries from historical sites, it is presumed that roots and tubers were the staple plant foods in this region before rice agriculture was widely practiced. But no direct evidences provided to test the hypothesis. Here we present evidence from starch and phytolith analyses of samples obtained during systematic excavations at the site of Xincun on the southern coast of China, demonstrating that during 3,350–2,470 aBC humans exploited sago palms, bananas, freshwater roots and tubers, fern roots, acorns, Job’s-tears as well as wild rice. A dominance of starches and phytoliths from palms suggest that the sago-type palms were an important plant food prior to the rice in south subtropical China. We also believe that because of their reliance on a wide range of starch-rich plant foods, the transition towards labour intensive rice agriculture was a slow process.
The orthodox view of the spread of agriculture in southern China and southeast Asia is that Neolithic farmers spread south from mainland China on to Taiwan and then into island Southeast Asia. In doing so, they are argued to have spread a cultural package of domesticated rice, pigs, forms of pottery, along with Austronesian languages. The initial cultural migration from southern China is thought to have occurred sometime around or prior to 5,000 years ago, ultimately terminating in the colonization of remote Oceania by 1,200 AD –.This model is built upon evidence from archaeological, as well as linguistic and genetic data –, but importantly, from many sites used in the model, archaeobotanical data is lacking. Because of poor organic preservation at many of these southern subtropical sites, we know very little about the typical plant diets south of the Yangtze River Basin. As a result archaeologists have been forced to rely on data from historic sites and written records to infer the nature of subsistence in this region .
According to the historic records it is generally presumed that roots and tubers were the likely staple plant foods during the prehistoric period –. This view has been supported by limited archaeological evidence of charred roots and tubers, although unidentified to species recovered from Zengpiyan cave, an early Holocene site in Guangxi, south China . Xincun site, reported here, clarifies for the first time, the plant use traditions that dominated southern subtropical China and by reference other parts of Southeast Asia, before the spread of rice cultivation.
The Xincun site (112°59′E, 21°54′N) is located at 7.0 m a.s.l. along the crest of a coastal sand dune, approximately 180 km southwest of Guangzhou City (Figure 1). The site was excavated from July 2008 through April 2009, ahead of a major industrial development in the area, uncovering ~8,000 m2 a series of village occupations. This settlement was located near a remnant of an older lagoon into which freshwater streams flew from surrounding hills (Figure 1). During the excavations six late Neolithic layers were identified alternating with sandy layers, 15–40 cm thick, indicating periods of site abandonment. Ten AMS dates derived from charcoal and soot from the exterior faces of pottery fragments placed the site occupations between ca.3,500 aBC and 2,470 aBC (Table 1). Features included living surfaces, postholes, pits of various types and hearths were systematically uncovered. The material culture is characterized by sand tempered pottery, stone tools including grinding slabs and pestles, grooved pebbles, net weights, and pierced pebble sinkers for fishing.
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