Yunnan pig
The first agriculturalists outside of Mesopotamia lived in China. Crop remains, bones of domestic animals, as well as polished tools and pottery first appeared in China round 7500 B.C., about a thousand years after the first crops were raised in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia. Millet was domesticated about 10,000 years ago in China around the same time the first crops — wheat and barely — were domesticated in the fertile Crescent.

The technique of dating starch granules found in cracks in rocks used to grind up plant material have has been used to find the earliest known use of several foods, including beans and yams from China dated to between 19,500 and 23,000 years ago. [Source: Ian Johnston, The Independent, July 3, 2017]

The earliest identified crops in China were two drought-resistant species of millet in the north and rice in the south (see below). Domesticated millet was produced in China by 6000 B.C. Most ancient Chinese ate millet before they ate rice. Among the other crops that were grown by the ancient Chinese were soybeans, hemp, tea, apricots, pears, peaches and citrus fruits. Before the cultivation of rice and millet, people ate grasses, beans, wild millet seeds, a type of yam and snakegourd root in northern China and sago palm, bananas, acorns and freshwater roots and tubers in southern China.

The earliest domesticated animals in China were pigs, dogs and chickens, which were first domesticated in China by 4000 B.C. and believed to have spread from China across Asia and the Pacific. Among the other animals that were domesticated by the ancient Chinese were water buffalo (important for pulling plows), silkworms, ducks and geese.

Wheat, barley, cows, horses, sheep, goats and pigs were introduced to China from the Fertile Crescent in western Asia. Tall horses, like we are familiar with today, were introduced to China in the first century B.C.

According to the ancient Chinese myth, in 2853 B.C. the legendary Emperor Shennong of China declared the five sacred plants to be: rice, wheat, barley, millet and soybeans.

22,000-Year-Old Agricultural Tools Found in China

In May 2013, Stanford University reported: “The first evidence of agriculture appears in the archaeological record some 10,000 years ago. But the skills needed to cultivate and harvest crops weren’t learned overnight. Scientists have traced these roots back to 23,000-year-old tools used to grind seeds, found mostly in the Middle East. Now, research lead by Li Liu, a professor of Chinese archaeology at Stanford, reveals that the same types of tools were used to process seeds and tubers in northern China, setting China’s agricultural clock back about 12,000 years and putting it on par with activity in the Middle East. Liu believes that the practices evolved independently, possibly as a global response to a changing climate.[Source: Stanford University, May 3, 2013. The study was published in April 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.]

“The earliest grinding stones have been found in Upper Palaeolithic archaeological sites around the world. These consisted of a pair of stones, typically a handheld stone that would be rubbed against a larger, flat stone set on the ground, to process wild seeds and tubers into flour-like powder. Once the stones are unearthed, use-wear traces and residue of starch grains on the used surfaces can be analysed to reveal the types of plants processed.

“Liu focused on stones discovered at a roughly 23,000-year-old site in the middle of the Yellow River region in northern China. Most of the agricultural research in this area has focused on the Holocene period, roughly 10,000 years ago, when people were domesticating animals and farming. “The roots of agriculture must be much deeper than 10,000 years ago,” Liu said. “People have to first be familiar with the wild plants before cultivating them. The use of these grinding stones to process food indicates that people exploited these plants intensively and became familiar with their characteristics, a process that eventually led to agriculture.”

22,000-year-old Chinese Foods: Grasses, Beans, Wild Millet Seeds, Yam and Snakegourd Root


According to Stanford University: “Starch analysis has shown traces of grasses, beans, wild millet seeds, a type of yam and snakegourd root – the same types of food that people in the region would domesticate thousands of years later. Domesticated millet, in particular, became the main staple crop that supported the agricultural basis of ancient Chinese civilization. [Source: Stanford University, May 3, 2013]

“Similar patterns of activity existed around the world at the same time, but this is the first evidence that people in northern China were practising comparable methods. In particular, the extensive use of seeds by people in China and elsewhere could help paint a picture of humans adapting to a worldwide changing climate during an ice age.”

“Wild millet seeds are very, very small, and people would need to spend a lot of time to gather enough seeds to be useful,” Liu said. “This suggests either that they were under some pressure and better foods were not readily available, or that seeds had suddenly become more abundant and easier to collect. We know that during the Ice Age, populations were under pressure. I think that our finding suggests that there was some general evolutionary trend, and that people around the world reacted to climate change in a similar way, although independently.”

The presence of tubers could point to the dawn of another discipline. “Yam and snakegourd root that we found can be used both as food and as traditional herb medicine in China,” Liu said. “Whether or not they were used as medicine, we don’t know yet, but this discovery could suggest that people understood, or were developing an understanding of, the medicinal properties of some of those roots.”

Millet First Domesticated in China 10,000 Years Ago

Research analysis in “Earliest domestication of common millet (Panicum miliaceum) in East Asia extended to 10,000 years ago” concluded that “the earliest significant common millet cultivation system was established in the semiarid regions of China by 10,000 cal yr BP, and that the relatively dry condition in the early Holocene may have been favorable for the domestication of common millet over foxtail millet. Our study shows that common millet appeared as a staple crop in northern China ̃10,000 years ago, suggesting that common millet might have been domesticated independently in this area and later spread to Russia, India, the Middle East, and Europe. Nevertheless, like Mesopotamia, where the spread of wheat and barley to the fertile floodplains of the Lower Tigris and Euphrates was a key factor in the emergence of civilization, the spread of common millet to the more productive regions of the Yellow River and its tributaries provided the essential food surplus that later permitted the development of social complexity in the Chinese civilization.” [Source: “Earliest domestication of common millet (Panicum miliaceum) in East Asia extended to 10,000 years ago” by Houyuan Lua, Jianping Zhanga, Kam-biu Liub, Naiqin Wua, Yumei Lic, Kunshu Zhoua, Maolin Yed, Tianyu Zhange, Haijiang Zhange, Xiaoyan Yangf, Licheng Shene, Deke Xua and Quan Lia. Edited by Dolores R. Piperno, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and National Museum of Natural History, Washington, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 17, 2009 ++]

The above study reported “the discovery of husk phytoliths and biomolecular components identifiable solely as common millet from newly excavated storage pits at the Neolithic Cishan site, China, dated to between ca. 10,300 and ca. 8,700 calibrated years before present (cal yr BP). After ca. 8,700 cal yr BP, the grain crops began to contain a small quantity of foxtail millet. Our research reveals that the common millet was the earliest dry farming crop in East Asia, which is probably attributed to its excellent resistance to drought.” [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ++]

“Foxtail millet (Setaria italica) and common millet (or broomcorn millet; Panicum miliaceum) were among the world’s most important and ancient domesticated crops. They were staple foods in the semiarid regions of East Asia (China, Japan, Russia, India, and Korea) and even in the entire Eurasian continent before the popularity of rice and wheat, and are still important foods in these regions today.” ++

Cishan in Northern China: Home of the World’s Oldest Millet

millet field in the mountains

According to the paper “Earliest domestication of common millet (Panicum miliaceum) in East Asia extended to 10,000 years ago”: “Thirty years ago, the world’s oldest millet remains, dating to ca. 8,200 calibrated years before present (cal yr BP), were discovered at the Early Neolithic site of Cishan, northern China. The site contained more than 50,000 kilograms of grain crops stored in the storage pits. Until now, the importance of these findings has been constrained by limited taxonomic identification with regard to whether they are from foxtail millet (S. italica) or common millet (P. miliaceum), because the early reported S. italica identifications are not all accepted. This article presents the phytoliths, biomolecular records, and new radiocarbon dating from newly excavated grain crop storage pits at the Cishan site. Large modern reference collections are used to compare and contrast microfossil morphology and biomolecular components in different millets and related grass species. The renewed investigations show that common millet agriculture arose independently in the semiarid regions of China by 10,000 cal yr BP. [Source: “Earliest domestication of common millet (Panicum miliaceum) in East Asia extended to 10,000 years ago” by Houyuan Lua, Jianping Zhanga, Kam-biu Liub, Naiqin Wua, Yumei Lic, Kunshu Zhoua, Maolin Yed, Tianyu Zhange, Haijiang Zhange, Xiaoyan Yangf, Licheng Shene, Deke Xua and Quan Lia. Edited by Dolores R. Piperno, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and National Museum of Natural History, Washington, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 17, 2009 ++]

The Cishan site (36̊34.511' N, 114̊06.720' E) is located near the junction between the Loess Plateau and the North China Plain at an elevation of 260–270 meters above sea level. The archaeological site, containing a total of 88 storage pits with significant quantities (about 109 cubic meters) of grain crop remains, was excavated from 1976 to 1978. Each storage pit included 0.3- to 2-meter-thick grain crops, which were well preserved and found in situ in the 3- to 5-meter-deep loess layer. All grain remains have been oxidized to ashes soon after they were exposed to air. Archaeological excavations also revealed the remains of houses and numerous millstones, stone shovels, grind rollers, potteries, rich faunal remains, and plant assemblages including charred fruits of walnut (Juglans regia), hazel (Corylus heterophylla), and hackberry (Celtis bungeana). Only 2 14C dates of charcoal from previously excavated H145 and H48 storage pits yielded uncalibrated ages of 7355 ± 100 yr BP and 7235 ± 105 yr BP, respectively. These remains represent the earliest evidence for the significant use of dry-farming crop plants in the human diet in East Asia. They also suggest that by this time agriculture had already been relatively well developed here. ++

Millet Types, Early Agriculture and China’s Environment 10,000 Years Ago

According to the paper “Earliest domestication of common millet (Panicum miliaceum) in East Asia extended to 10,000 years ago”: According to archeobotanical research, the early charred grains of common millet occurred during the initial stages of various Early Neolithic sites, including Dadiwan (ca. 7.8–7.35 cal kyr BP) (21), Xinglonggou (ca. 8.0–7.5 cal kyr BP), and Yuezhuang (ca. 7.87 cal kyr BP) in North China, but foxtail millet was barely present during these stages. Lee et al. have speculated that the Early Neolithic predominance of broomcorn over foxtail millet at Xinglonggou and Yuezhuang ca. 6000 cal B.C. might be a regional phenomenon, implying that broomcorn millet might have been domesticated earlier than foxtail millet. [Source: “Earliest domestication of common millet (Panicum miliaceum) in East Asia extended to 10,000 years ago” by Houyuan Lua, Jianping Zhanga, Kam-biu Liub, Naiqin Wua, Yumei Lic, Kunshu Zhoua, Maolin Yed, Tianyu Zhange, Haijiang Zhange, Xiaoyan Yangf, Licheng Shene, Deke Xua and Quan Lia. Edited by Dolores R. Piperno, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and National Museum of Natural History, Washington, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 17, 2009 ++]

“Our analytical results of both phytoliths and biomolecular components have established that the earliest cereal remains stored in the Cishan Neolithic sites, during ca. 10,300–8,700 cal yr BP, are not foxtail millet, but only common millet. After 8,700 cal yr BP, the grain crops gradually contained 0.4–2.8 percent foxtail millet. Our study also suggests that common millet was used as a staple food significantly earlier than foxtail millet in northern China. It provides direct evidence to show that, by 10,000 cal yr BP, the early people in northern China had developed various methods of maintenance and multiplication of millet seeds for the next generation, and had known how to store crops of staple food in secure, dry places of storage pits during the Early Neolithic epoch. ++

“Common millet has the lowest water requirement among all grain crops; it is also a relatively short-season crop, and could grow well in poor soils. The geographical distribution of both foxtail millet and common millet in China shows that foxtail millet is more common in the semiwet eastern areas, and its optimal growth occurs at mean annual temperature (MAT) from 8 to 10 ̊C and mean annual precipitation (MAP) from 450 to 550 mm. However, common millet is more adapted to the drier interior areas, and its optimal growing conditions occur at MAT from 6 to 8 ̊C and MAP from 350 to 450 mm. The origin and dispersal of millet agriculture is a key problem closely related to the history of human impact on the environment and transformation of natural vegetation. ++

“Paleoenvironmental data from the Weinan section in the southern part of the Loess Plateau between the Cishan and Dadiwan sites are crucial for understanding the early stage of the forager–cultivator transition. The early Holocene was a period of significant environmental change marked by dry climate conditions as inferred from sediment texture, magnetic susceptibility, pollen, phytoliths, and mollusk assemblages. These proxy records show an environmental transition from cold–dry (ca. 11,000–8,700 cal yr BP) to warm–wet (ca. 8,700–5,500 cal yr BP) conditions. Many lacustrine and loess records from the Chinese Loess Plateau to Central Asia also support the scenario of a dry climate during the early Holocene. Under the drier climate conditions, soil development was slowed, and the soil developed on the underlying older and coarser loess of the glacial period was poor in nutrients. This raises the possibility that common millet was more significant than foxtail millet in the early stages of food production in North China because it was more adaptable than foxtail millet to the dry condition prevailing during the early Holocene. The common millet cultivation may involve complex selection by natural forces and human activities, although no clear evidence has been documented in this region for the transitions from gathering to cultivation and/or from a wild ancestor to domesticated common millet.” ++

Millet Carried by Herders from China to Europe

millet in Manchuria, 1936

In December 2015, the University of Cambridge reported: New research shows that millet “was carried across Eurasia by ancient shepherds and herders laying the foundation, in combination with the new crops they encountered, of ‘multi-crop’ agriculture and the rise of settled societies...Now a forgotten crop in the West, this hardy grain – familiar in the west today as birdseed – was ideal for ancient shepherds and herders, who carried it right across Eurasia, where it was mixed with crops such as wheat and barley. This gave rise to ‘multi-cropping’, which in turn sowed the seeds of complex urban societies, say archaeologists. [Source: University of Cambridge, December 14, 2015 |]

“A team from the UK, USA and China has traced the spread of the domesticated grain from North China and Inner Mongolia into Europe through a “hilly corridor” along the foothills of Eurasia.Millet favours uphill locations, doesn’t require much water, and has a short growing season: it can be harvested 45 days after planting, compared with 100 days for rice, allowing a very mobile form of cultivation. Nomadic tribes were able to combine growing crops of millet with hunting and foraging as they travelled across the continent between 2500 and 1600 B.C.. Millet was eventually mixed with other crops in emerging populations to create ‘multi-crop’ diversity, which extended growing seasons and provided our ancient ancestors with food security. |

“The need to manage different crops in different locations, and the water resources required, depended upon elaborate social contracts and the rise of more settled, stratified communities and eventually complex ‘urban’ human societies. Researchers say we need to learn from the earliest farmers when thinking about feeding today’s populations, and millet may have a role to play in protecting against modern crop failure and famine. “Today millet is in decline and attracts relatively little scientific attention, but it was once among the most expansive cereals in geographical terms. We have been able to follow millet moving in deep history, from where it originated in China and spread across Europe and India,” said Professor Martin Jones from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, who is presenting the research findings today at the Shanghai Archaeological Forum. “These findings have transformed our understanding of early agriculture and society. It has previously been assumed that early agriculture was focused in river valleys where there is plentiful access to water. However, millet remains show that the first agriculture was instead centred higher up on the foothills – allowing this first pathway for ‘exotic’ eastern grains to be carried west.”|

“The researchers carried out radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis on charred millet grains recovered from archaeological sites across China and Inner Mongolia, as well as genetic analysis of modern millet varieties, to reveal the process of domestication that occurred over thousands of years in northern China and produced the ancestor of all broomcorn millet worldwide. “We can see that millet in northern China was one of the earliest centres of crop domestication, occurring over the same timescale as rice domestication in south China and barley and wheat in west China,” explained Jones. “Domestication is hugely significant in the development of early agriculture – humans select plants with seeds that don’t fall off naturally and can be harvested, so over several thousand years this creates plants that are dependent on farmers to reproduce,” he said. “This also means that the genetic make-up of these crops changes in response to changes in their environment – in the case of millet, we can see that certain genes were ‘switched off’ as they were taken by farmers far from their place of origin.” |

“As the network of farmers, shepherds and herders crystallised across the Eurasian corridor, they shared crops and cultivation techniques with other farmers, and this, Jones explains, is where the crucial idea of ‘multi-cropping’ emerged. “The first pioneer farmers wanted to farm upstream in order to have more control over their water source and be less dependent on seasonal weather variations or potential neighbours upstream,” he said. “But when ‘exotic’ crops appear in addition to the staple crop of the region, then you start to get different crops growing in different areas and at different times of year. This is a huge advantage in terms of shoring up communities against possible crop failures and extending the growing season to produce more food or even surplus. |

“Towards the end of the second and first millennia B.C. larger human settlements, underpinned by multi-crop agriculture, began to develop. The earliest examples of text, such as the Sumerian clay tablets from Mesopotamia, and oracle bones from China, allude to multi-crop agriculture and seasonal rotation. Crop rotation, Jones says “introduces a more pressing need for cooperation, and the beginnings of a stratified society. With some people growing crops upstream and some farming downstream, you need a system of water management, and you can’t have water management and seasonal crop rotation without an elaborate social contract.”|

Sago Palms Farmed Before Rice in Southern China

Before rice cultivation became widespread on southern coast of China, people there relied on sago palms as staple plant foods, according to research published 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. In this study, researchers analyzed starch granules recovered from Neolithic stone tools used approximately 3,350-2,470 B.C., 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. [Source: Eurkeakalert!, May 8, 2013]

According to the article: “Sago-Type Palms Were an Important Plant Food Prior to Rice in Southern Subtropical China: “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. [Source: “Sago-Type Palms Were an Important Plant Food Prior to Rice in Southern Subtropical China” by Xiaoyan Yang, Huw J. Barton, Zhiwei Wan, Quan Li, Zhikun Ma, Mingqi Li, Dan Zhang and Jun Wei, PLOS one, May 8, 2013 ==]

“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 (112̊59'E, 21̊54'N) is located at 7.0 m a.s.l. along the crest of a coastal sand dune, approximately 180 kilometers southwest of Guangzhou City. 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. During the excavations six late Neolithic layers were identified alternating with sandy layers, 15–40 centimeters 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. 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.” ==

Early Soybeans in China

Soybeans come from wild soybeans, ground-dwelling vines that are found in northeastern China and very different from modern, commercial soy bean plants. The black and brown beans from these wild plants were collected by prehistoric Chinese at least by 3500 B.C., first cultivated by Chinese farmers about 1000 B.C., and fashioned into tofu about a 1000 years later. Soy beans were not known by Europeans until a German physician in Japan wrote about them in 1690. They remained largely unknown in the West until 1900. Soybeans remain a major crop in China, Japan, and Korea. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

According to “Origin, History and Uses of Soybean” (Glycine Max) by Lance Gibson and Garren Benson, “The first domestication of soybean has been traced to the eastern half of North China in the eleventh century B.C. or perhaps a bit earlier.” However they are believed to have been used as a food and a component of drugs since 5,000 years ago. The wild ancestor of the soybean is Glycine soja (previously called G. ussuriensis), a legume native to central China. Wild-size soybeans have been found in the Yellow River basin of China.

The oldest preserved soybeans found in archaeological sites in Korea have dated to about 1000 B.C.. Radiocarbon dating of soybean samples recovered through flotation during excavations at the Early Mumun period Okbang site in Korea indicated soybean was cultivated as a food crop in around 1000–900 B.C.

An important paper on Soybean domestication (subtitle “Does size matter?“) was published in November 2011 in PLOSone by G-A. Lee et al. According to the Archaeobotanist, “This reports details on the morphometrics of more than 900 archaeological soybeans across 22 sites in (northern) China, South Korea and Japan, including 7 directly dated by AMS. This provides the first really good archaeological dataset for making inferences about soybean domestication, and includes a summary of the soybean metrics from Wangchenggang published in a Chinese monograph in 2007 by Zhao Zhijun (and in more detail his 2010 book collection), previously suggested to indicate some size increase by the Longshan period (i.e. 2500-1900 B.C.). [Source: The Archaeobotanist, “Soybean archaeobotany: multiple origins and not coincident with cereals”, December 6, 2011 ++]

“The data reported here suggests large, truly domesticated soybeans present in middle Jomon Japan Shimoyakebe (near Tokyo), from the Third Millennium B.C. These are significantly larger than those from the Yellow River valley of similar age, the Longshan period, which are also probably enlarged by selection under cultivation (at least the population from Wangchengang appear enlarged while some other Longshan samples still fall in the wild type range). In Korea a measured population form the Middle Chulmun is perhaps marginally enlarged while those of the later Mumum had clearly undergone selection for size increase.

“The overall impression that selection for seed size increase in soybeans was a protracted process and one that was uneven in different regions, and it may be that in some areas wild population continued to be exploited or proximity of wild populations and early cultivation methods did not lends themselves to selecting for larger seed size. This then complements data emerging from several crops for a protracted process of evolution of domestication traits (see previous, for example my articles in Annals of Botany or Evolution, and for a discussion of protracted domestication processes in the New World tropics see the recent Current Anthropology by Piperno). It also strongly points to a Jomon domestication independent from that in northern China, and one in which seed size evolved more quickly.” ++

Sources on soybeans: 1) M. M. Lager, The Useful Soybean (1945); J. P. Houck et al., Soybeans and Their Products (1972); 2) A Special Report on History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in China and Around the World | A Chapter from the Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and Soyfoods: 1100 B.C. to the 1980s by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi Retr. from; 3) On the domestication of the Soybean (National Soybean Research Laboratory).

Fruits That Originated in China

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “Some of the commonest plants grown by us today are of Chinese origin. Among fruits there are the peach and the apricot, which very possibly entered Europe together with the silk trade during Roman times. Many of our citrus fruits, likewise, were originally native to Southeast Asia, including southern China. There they were long known and cultivated by the Chinese before being brought, usually by the Arabs, to the Western world. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“The orange, for example, was not known to Europeans until introduced by the Arabs in the eleventh century. In Holland and Germany it is still called the "Chinese apple." The lemon, too, was brought by the Arabs from India to Europe a little before 1400. It had already been cultivated in South China, however, for some time before it spread to India. Another important citrus, our American grapefruit, is a considerably modified descendant of the Chinese pomelo. In this case, however, the fruit did not travel over the southern route by way of India. It was taken in the eighteenth century from China by way of the Pacific and Cape Horn to the West Indies. From there it spread to other parts of the Americas. That is why the grapefruit, even today, is almost unknown in Europe. /=/

“Other plants in China, though as yet unknown in the West, may some day find an equal welcome. Among them are the deliciously sweet lichee nut, which is really a juicy fruit, though it is known in this country only in its dried form; the curious aquatic vegetable known as the water chestnut; the Chinese persimmon, which grows to almost twice the size of the persimmon native to this country; and the succulent shoots of the young bamboo, which are a favorite article in the Chinese diet. /=/

Peaches Domesticated in China 7,500 Years Ago

In September 2014, researchers at the University of Toronto announced that peaches were domesticated in China at least 7,500 years ago. Archeology magazine reported: “Farmers began to domesticate peach trees 7,500 years ago in the lower Yangtze River Valley of southern China, according to a new study of ancient peach pits conducted by Yunfei Zheng and X. Chen of the Zhejiang Institute of Archaeology, and Gary Crawford of the University of Toronto Mississauga. Since peach trees mature quickly and produce fruit within two to three years, the results of selective breeding for preferred traits, such as larger, sweeter peaches, would have been seen by early farmers relatively quickly. And peach pits survive in the archaeological record.” The study was published in PLOS ONE. [Source: Archeology magazine, September 9, 2014 ==]

The ancient peach stones (pits) were dated using radiocarbon dating, “By comparing peach pits from six sites that spanned a period of 5,000 years, the scientists determined that peaches were indeed growing larger in the Yangtze Valley, becoming the fruit we recognize today over a period of about 3,000 years. “We’re suggesting that very early on, people understood grafting and vegetative reproduction, because it sped up selection. They had to have been doing such work, because seeds have a lot of genetic variability, and you don’t know if a seed will produce the same fruit as the tree that produced it. It’s a gamble. If they simply started grafting, it would guarantee the orchard would have the peaches they wanted,” Crawford told Science Daily.” ==

Crawford and his colleagues think that it took about 3,000 years before the domesticated peach resembled the fruit we know today. “The peaches we eat today didn’t grow in the wild,” Crawford told Science Daily. “Generation after generation kept selecting the peaches they enjoyed. The product went from thinly fleshed, very small fruit to what we have today. Peaches produce fruit over an extended season today but in the wild they have a short season. People must have selected not only for taste and fruit size, but for production time too.” [Source: Science Daily, September 6, 2014 ***]

According to Science Daily, “Archeologists have a good understanding of domestication — conscious breeding for traits preferred by people- of annual plants such as grains (rice, wheat, etc.), but the role of trees in early farming and how trees were domesticated is not well documented. Unlike most trees, the peach matures very quickly, producing fruit within two to three years, so selection for desirable traits could become apparent relatively quickly. The problem that Crawford and his colleagues faced was how to recognize the selection process in the archeological record. “Previously, no one knew where peaches were domesticated,” said Crawford. “None of the botanical literature suggested the Yangtze Valley, although many people thought that it happened somewhere in China.” ***

“Discovering more about the origins of domesticated peaches tells us more about our human ancestors, too, Crawford noted. Crops such as domesticated peaches indicate that early people weren’t passive in dealing with the environment. Not only did they understand grain production, but the woodlands and certain trees were being manipulated early on. “There is a general sense that people in the past were not as smart as we are,” said Crawford. “The reality is that they were modern humans with the brain capacity and talents that we have now. “People have been changing the environment to suit their needs for a very long time, and the domestication of peaches helps us understand this.” ***

Oldest Peach Pits — More than 2½ Million Years Old — Found in Southern China

In November 2015, it was announced that the oldest peach pits yet discovered had been found in Kumming, Yunnan Province, China. Matthew Carroll of Penn State University: “Scientists have found eight well-preserved fossilized peach endocarps, or pits, in southwest China dating back more than two and a half million years. Despite their age, the fossils appear nearly identical to modern peach pits. The findings, reported in Nature Scientific Reports, suggest that peaches evolved through natural selection well before humans domesticated the fruit. It's the first discovery of fossilized peaches, and it sheds new light on the evolutionary history of the fruit, which has not been well understood. "The peach is an important part of human history, and it's important to understand how it became what it is today," said Peter Wilf, a professor of paleobotany at Penn State and co-author of the article. "If we know the origins of our resources we can make better use of them." [Source: Matthew Carroll, Penn State University, November 30, 2015 =|=]

“Tao Su, lead author on the paper and associate professor at Xishuangbanna Tropical Garden, discovered the fossils near his home in Kunming when some road construction exposed a rock outcrop from the late Pliocene. "We found these peach endocarp fossils just exposed in the strata," Su said. "It's really a fantastic finding." Su said the discovery provides important new evidence for the origins and evolution of the modern fruit. Peaches are widely thought to have originated in China, but the oldest evidence had been archeological records dating back roughly 8,000 years. No wild population has ever been found, and its long trade history makes tracing its beginnings difficult. =|=

“Animals, perhaps even primates and, eventually, early hominids, snacked on and dispersed the sweet, wild fruit and played a key role in its evolution. Only much later, after modern humans arrived, was the peach domesticated and bred. Humans have created new varieties and larger sizes ever since and spread the fruit across what is now China, and far beyond. Is the peach we see today something that resulted from artificial breeding under agriculture since prehistory, or did it evolve under natural selection? The answer is really both," said Wilf, an associate in Penn State's Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. "The peach was a witness to the human colonization of China," Wilf said. "It was there before humans, and through history we adapted to it and it to us." =|=

“Su brought the fossils to Penn State and analyzed them while working there as a visiting scholar and collaborating with Wilf. Several tests confirmed that the fossils are indeed more than 2.5 million years old and not from recent contamination. In addition to their having been found in the Pliocene rocks along with many other plant fossils, the seeds inside the pits are replaced by iron, and the walls of the pits are recrystallized. A modern peach pit would have a recent radiocarbon date, but radiocarbon analysis of the fossil peaches showed them to be older than the limit of radiocarbon dating, which about 50,000 years. =|=

“Researchers compared the correlation between modern peach and pit size, and used that to estimate the size of the fruit during the late Pliocene as approximately 5 centimeters in diameter. "If you imagine the smallest commercial peach today, that's what these would look like, " Wilf said. "It's something that would have had a fleshy, edible fruit around it. It must have been delicious." The researchers say the discovery supports China being the home of the peach.

The fossils looked “strikingly modern,” according to Su. In Scientific Reports, Su wrote: “The fossils are identical to modern peach endocarps, including size comparable to smaller modern varieties, a single seed, a deep dorsal groove, and presence of deep pits and furrows.” After analyzing the morphological characters of the pits, the researchers concluded they belonged to the genus Prunus and proposed a new species name, Prunus kunmingensis. “We aim to provide an unambiguous epithet for the fossils in the absence of a whole-plant reconstruction,” the researchers said. [Source:, December 1, 2015]

Ancient Avian Bones Found in China: Oldest Example of Chicken Domestication?

20120515-chicken jungle fowl Gallus_sonneratii_-Kerala.jpg
jungle fowl, Gallus sonneratii
source of chickens
In November 2014, a team of researchers in China studying ancient avian bones found in the northern part of that country, said there were indication they may be that of the oldest known example of chicken domestication. The scientists described their analysis and findings in a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers [Source: Bob Yirka,, November 25, 2014 ^^^]

Bob Yirka wrote in “Identifying the first culture to domesticate chickens has been hotly debated for over a century, without any clear winner, and it may remain that way as evidence is piling up suggesting that chickens were likely domesticated in a variety of places across the globe and have since undergone comingling, creating a mish-mash of genetic evidence. In this new effort, the researchers sought to find out if ancient bone samples found in four different archeological sites in northern China were chicken ancestors and if so, if they were domesticated. The bones were found alongside charcoal and other animal remains, such as dogs and pigs, both of which are believed to have been domesticated by that time in history, suggesting that the bird bones were from a species that had been domesticated as well. The excavation sites have also given up other findings which suggest the people who’d been barbecuing the animals were farmers, not hunters, which also adds credence to the idea that the birds they were eating were domesticated. ^^^

“The bones in question (39 in all) had been previously carbon dated to various ages, ranging from 2,300 to 10,500 years ago. The new research focused on gathering genetic evidence and using mitochondrial DNA sequencing to determine if the birds were chicken ancestors, or not. The team compared the DNA of the ancient birds with modern birds of the Galliformes order, which include rock partridges, pheasants and of course chickens and also to samples of ancient bones found in other places, such as Spain, Hawaii, Easter Island and Chile. Their analyses revealed that the birds were members of the genus Gallus, which includes modern chickens. But it’s still not enough to prove that they were actually the first example of domesticated chickens because there is still no conclusive proof that the birds were actually domesticated.”

The abstract to the article entitled “"Early Holocene chicken domestication in northern China” reads: Chickens represent by far the most important poultry species, yet the number, locations, and timings of their domestication have remained controversial for more than a century. Here we report ancient mitochondrial DNA sequences from the earliest archaeological chicken bones from China, dating back to ~10,000 B.P. The results clearly show that all investigated bones, including the oldest from the Nanzhuangtou site, are derived from the genus Gallus, rather than any other related genus, such as Phasianus. Our analyses also suggest that northern China represents one region of the earliest chicken domestication, possibly dating as early as 10,000 y B.P. Similar to the evidence from pig domestication, our results suggest that these early domesticated chickens contributed to the gene pool of modern chicken populations. Moreover, our results support the idea that multiple members of the genus Gallus, specifically Gallus gallus and Gallus sonneratii contributed to the gene pool of the modern domestic chicken. Our results provide further support for the growing evidence of an early mixed agricultural complex in northern China.

Dogs First Domesticated in China — To Be Food?

According to genetic analysis published in 2009, wolves were domesticated 16,300 years ago in southern China — possibly to be livestock, not pets. “In this region, even today, eating dog is a big cultural thing,” study co-author Peter Savolainen, a biologist at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, said. “And you can also see in the historical records as far back as you can go that eating dogs has been very common” in East Asia. Therefore, you have to think of the possibility that this was one of the reasons for domesticating dogs.” [Source: article: John Roach, National Geographic News, September 4, 2009] John Roach, National Geographic News

The study was published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution and helps support the long-held theory that dogs first became “man’s best friend” in East Asia. John Roach wrote in National Geographic News: “For the new work, Savolainen and colleagues analyzed the entire mitochondrial genome—DNA passed down only from the mother—of 169 dogs, as well as portions of the genomes from 1,543 dogs from across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. These dogs all share at least 80 percent of their DNA, the team found. The animals’ genetic diversity increased the farther east the scientists looked. The greatest diversity was found in a region south of the Yangtze River in China.

According to Savolainen, the data make it “totally clear” that genetic variation in East Asian dogs is much higher than anywhere else in the world. The analysis also suggests that wolves were domesticated from several hundred individuals sometime between 5,400 and 16,300 years ago.This is around the time Asian hunter-gatherers were adopting a more settled agrarian lifestyle, which is part of what makes Savolainen think the canines might have been kept as food.

Adam Boyko, a biologist at Cornell University in New York and co-author of the study, said he would like to see more genetic evidence before he calls the finding proof of domestication. “But clearly, it is a very interesting result,” he said. “There is a ton of data backing it up, [and] they put forth a really interesting hypothesis for dog domestication.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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