March 25, 2013

Millet Mesolithic and Early Neolithic in Northern China

Panicum miliaceum
(GFDL by Kurt Stüber)
I'm getting my backlog up to date, so you will have to excuse some lack of in depth analysis in this and some entries to follow. My most sincere apologies because I'd really like to be able to offer an in-depth analysis in every other entry but the harsh reality is that my mind and my energies only reach that far.

This one is a paper from a year ago but that has some interest regarding the Mesolithic (wild cereal harvesting) transition to Neolithic (agriculture)  in China.

Xiaoyang Yang  et al., Early millet use in northern China. PNAS 2012. Freely accessibleLINK [doi:10.1073/pnas.1115430109]


It is generally understood that foxtail millet and broomcorn millet were initially domesticated in Northern China where they eventually became the dominant plant food crops. The rarity of older archaeological sites and archaeobotanical work in the region, however, renders both the origins of these plants and their processes of domestication poorly understood. Here we present ancient starch grain assemblages recovered from cultural deposits, including carbonized residues adhering to an early pottery sherd as well as grinding stone tools excavated from the sites of Nanzhuangtou (11.5–11.0 cal kyBP) and Donghulin (11.0–9.5 cal kyBP) in the North China Plain. Our data extend the record of millet use in China by nearly 1,000 y, and the record of foxtail millet in the region by at least two millennia. The patterning of starch residues within the samples allow for the formulation of the hypothesis that foxtail millets were cultivated for an extended period of two millennia, during which this crop plant appears to have been undergoing domestication. Future research in the region will help clarify the processes in place.



The data from these studies extends the archaeobotanical record of millet exploitation to 11 cal kyBP in East Asia. The presence of the starch grains on processing tools is a strong indicator that millet seeds were ground into flour or meal using stone tools, then cooked in earthenware vessels as early as 10 cal kyBP. Other grasses and geophytes were also part of the diet during this time in the North China Plain. We believe these data may indicate that the domestication of foxtail millet occurred over an extended period, perhaps two millennia or more. Future research in this region should help clarify the trajectory of this important crop plant.

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