Chinese 'were growing rice 8,000 years ago'

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The Chinese are the most famous rice-eaters in the world and it has been China's national dish for thousands of years, but quite how long was never apparent until now. Research shows that Stone Age man in eastern China planted rice in paddyfields nearly eight millennia ago.

The discovery sheds valuable new light on how human beings made the change from hunter- gatherers to farmers. It also shows how human beings have wrestled with climate change throughout the centuries.

Dr Zong Yongqiang from Durham University, working with Chinese researchers at the Neolithic site of Kuahuqiao near the eastern city of Hangzhou, has discovered evidence of man growing rice in the coastal marshland some 7,700 years ago.

The revelations about rice cultivation come from Kuahuqiao in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang. The famous Neolithic site near Hangzhou has yielded some of the most important discoveries about Stone Age life in China.

Digs unearthed the remains of a village of wooden dwellings which were perched on stilts over marshy wetlands as well as discoveries which included an 8,000-year-old drill used to make fire, a dugout pine canoe and three paddles.

Dr Zong, who is from Guangdong province originally but has lived in Durham for many years, said: "The site provided us with evidence for the earliest rice cultivation. We found the level of human manipulation of the environment was quite high."

After examining pollen, fungus and charcoal in which they found no sign of sea salt, the researchers deduced that the inhabitants had probably erected low, earthen dykes to protect the growing rice from rising sea levels. But the village eventually succumbed to the rising sea.

Dr Zong said: "We know that at the time the sea level was rising – not very fast, but rising – from post-glacial warming. If there had been no humans at Kuahuqiao, the water in the marsh would have become more brackish, but the brackish water was kept quite low."

High levels of animal and human dung on the rice fields may also indicate the use of fertiliser.

Dr Zong said: "They had a lot of knowledge and skills, such as using charcoal to make fire to clear and maintain the area."

The remains at Kuahuqiao were unearthed during the building of a brick factory in the early 1970s. The site was waterlogged so much of the organic artefacts were well preserved. It also yielded up the bones of dogs and pigs – evidence of domestication.

Previously, the farmed rice in China had been dated to about 6,000 years ago, but the new research shows that cultivating rice is much older – human beings may ihave been farming rice for up to 10,000 years.

The findings of Dr Zong and his Chinese university colleagues are published in this month's issue of Nature magazine.