Making Chinese Food

by Dave Schuler on May 4, 2013

There’s an interesting article at Past Horizons on recent discoveries in China that suggest that the groundwork for agriculture was laid thousands of years earlier than had previously been thought and, indeed, as early as in the Middle East and unrelated to Middle Eastern developments:

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.

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.”

Among the plants they’ve identified as having been used are millet, beans, yam, and snakegourd root.

I find a number of interesting things in this article. First, there’s an implication that laying the groundwork for agriculture necessarily means that agriculture itself is not far behind. There’s really no evidence that’s the case. The aboriginal inhabitants of Australia were doing just this sort of plant processing when Europeans first made contact with them in the 18th century. They had been doing it, quite literally, for tens of thousands of years.

Second, notice the speculation: “Liu believes that the practices evolved independently, possibly as a global response to a changing climate.” I think that this illustrates neatly how archaeologists are as likely to leap onto the bandwagons of their times as anybody else. When Robert and Linda Braidwood did their pioneering work on early horticulture and agriculture, IIRC they speculated that population pressures had lead human beings to adopt horticulture, then agriculture. Apparently now the speculation is climate change. I wonder how you’d go about disaggregating the effects of climate change from those of population pressures? The two explanations strike me as mutually contradictory.

Finally, however effective it might be as a method of losing weight, I find the term “paleo diet” amusing. Twenty thousand years ago is paleolithic by just about any reckoning. The actual fossil record seems to show that human beings have processed and eaten plants which have been a substantial part of their diet for about as long as human beings have existed. The likelihood is that Alley Oop ate bread. He probably didn’t consume refined sugar but he may well have have eaten bleached flour. Early pictures of bread suggest bleached flour. Bleaching flour is easy, if time-consuming. After it’s freshly milled—at which point it’s yellow—if you leave flour in the sun it whitens. It can also be sieved to produce a finer product, another process that’s been well-known for thousands if not tens of thousands of years.

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