Letter

Nature 449, 459-462 (27 September 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature06135; Received 30 April 2007; Accepted 31 July 2007

Fire and flood management of coastal swamp enabled first rice paddy cultivation in east China

Y. Zong1, Z. Chen2, J. B. Innes1, C. Chen3, Z. Wang2 & H. Wang4

  1. Geography Department, Durham University, Durham DH1 3LE, UK
  2. Institute for Estuarine and Coastal Research, East China Normal University, Shanghai 200062, China
  3. Department of Cultural Heritage, Fudan University, Shanghai 200433, China
  4. Department of Geography, East China Normal University, Shanghai 200062, China

Correspondence to: Y. Zong1J. B. Innes1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to Y.Z. (Email: y.q.zong@durham.ac.uk) or J.B.I. (Email: j.b.innes@durham.ac.uk).

The adoption of cereal cultivation was one of the most important cultural processes in history, marking the transition from hunting and gathering by Mesolithic foragers to the food-producing economy of Neolithic farmers1. In the Lower Yangtze region of China, a centre of rice domestication2, the timing and system of initial rice cultivation remain unclear. Here we report detailed evidence from Kuahuqiao that reveals the precise cultural and environmental context of rice cultivation at this earliest known Neolithic site in eastern China, 7,700 calibrated years before present (cal. yr bp). Pollen, algal, fungal spore and micro-charcoal data from sediments demonstrate that these Neolithic communities selected lowland swamps for their rice cultivation and settlement, using fire to clear alder-dominated wetland scrub and prepare the site for occupation, then to maintain wet grassland vegetation of paddy type. Regular flooding by slightly brackish water was probably controlled by ‘bunding’ to maintain crop yields. The site’s exploitation ceased when it was overwhelmed by marine inundation 7,550 cal. yr bp. Our results establish that rice cultivation began in coastal wetlands of eastern China, an ecosystem vulnerable to coastal change but of high fertility and productivity, attractions maximized for about two centuries by sustained high levels of cultural management of the environment.

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