Science China Earth Sciences

, Volume 59, Issue 8, pp 1562–1573 | Cite as

Prehistoric agriculture development in the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, southwest China: Archaeobotanical evidence

  • HaiMing Li
  • XinXin Zuo
  • LiHong Kang
  • LeLe Ren
  • FengWen Liu
  • HongGao Liu
  • NaiMeng Zhang
  • Rui Min
  • Xu Liu
  • GuangHui DongEmail author
Review Special Topic: Climate changes and human adaptation


The origin, development and expansion of prehistoric agriculture in East Asia have been widely investigated over the past two decades using archaeobotanical analysis from excavated Neolithic and Bronze Age sites. Research on prehistoric agriculture has predominantly focused in the valleys of the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. Agricultural development during the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods in the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau of southwest China, an important passageway for human migration into Southeast Asia, still remains unclear. In this paper, based on macrofossil and microfossil analysis and radiocarbon dating at the Shilinggang site, we investigate plant subsistence strategies in the Nujiang River valley during the Bronze Age period. Combined with previous archaeobotanical studies in the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, we explore agricultural development processes in this area during the Neolithic and Bronze Age. Our results indicate that rice and foxtail millet were cultivated in Shilinggang around 2500 cal a BP. Three phases of prehistoric agricultural development in the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau can be identified: rice cultivation from 4800–3900 cal a BP, mixed rice and millet crop (foxtail millet and broomcorn millet) cultivation from 3900–3400 cal a BP, and mixed rice, millet crop and wheat cultivation from 3400–2300 cal a BP. The development of agriculture in the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau during the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods was primarily promoted by prehistoric agriculture expansion across Eurasia, agricultural expansion which was also affected by the topographic and hydrological characteristics of the area.


Nujiang River valley Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau Neolithic Bronze Age Macrofossil analysis Phytolith analysis Radiocarbon dating 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Supplementary material

11430_2016_5292_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (203 kb)
Supplementary material, approximately 203 KB.


  1. An C B, Ji D X, Chen F H, Dong G H, Wang H, Dong W M, Zhao X Y. (2010). Evolution of prehistoric agriculture in central Gansu Province, China: A case study in Qin’an and Li County. Chin Sci Bull, 55: 1925–1930CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Barton L, An C B. (2014). An evaluation of competing hypotheses for the early adoption of wheat in East Asia. World Archaeol, 46: 775–798CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Barton L, Newsome S D, Chen F H, Wang H, Guilderson T P, Bettinger R L. (2009). Agriculture origins and the isotopic identity of domestication in northern China. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 106: 5523–5528CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Betts A, Jia P W, Dodson J. (2014). The origins of wheat in China and potential pathways for its introduction: A review. Quat Int, 348: 158–168CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chen F H, Dong G H, Zhang D J, Liu X Y, Jia X, An C B, Ma M M, Xie Y W, Barton L, Ren X Y, Zhao Z J, Wu X H, Jones M K. (2015). Agriculture facilitated permanent human occupation of the Tibetan Plateau after 3600 BP. Science, 347: 248–250CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cohen D J. (2011). The beginnings of agriculture in China. Curr Anthropol, 52: s273–s293CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dai Z P, Xiao M H, Zhang X Y. (2002). Excavation report of Xinguang site in Yongping county, Yunnan Province (in Chinese). Acta Archaeol Sin, 2: 203–234Google Scholar
  8. Dai Z P, Zhou Z Q, Gu F, Zhao Z J. (2003). Excavation reports of Caiyuanzi and Mopandi sites in Yongren county, Yunnan Province (in Chinese). Acta Archaeol Sin, 2: 263–296Google Scholar
  9. Dodson J R, Li X Q, Zhou X Y, Zhao K L, Sun N, Atahan P. (2013). Origin and spread of wheat in China. Quat Sci Rev, 72: 108–111CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Diamond J, Bellwood P. (2003). Farmers and their languages: The first expansions. Science, 300: 597–603CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dong G H, Wang Z L, Ren L L, Matuzeviciute G M, Wang H, Ren X Y. (2014). A comparative study of radiocarbon dating charcoal and charred seeds from the same flotation samples in the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age sites in the Gansu and Qinghai Provinces, northwest China. Radiocarbon, 56: 157–163CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dong G H, Ren L L, Jia X, Liu X Y, Dong S M, Li H M, Wang Z X, Xiao Y M, Chen F H. 2016. Chronology and subsistence strategy of Nuomuhong culture in the Tibetan Plateau. Quat Int, doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2016.02.031Google Scholar
  13. Fu D X. (2001). The crop remains of discovery, identification and research in Changguogou Neolithic site in Tibet (in Chinese). Archaeology, 3: 66–74Google Scholar
  14. Fuller D Q, Harvey E L, Qin L. (2007). Presumed domestication? Evidence for wild rice cultivation and domestication in the fifth millennium BC of the lower Yangtze region. Antiquity, 81: 316–331CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fuller D Q, Qin L, Zheng Y F, Zhao Z J, Chen X G, Hosoya L A, Sun G P. (2009). The domestication process and domestication rate in rice: Spikelet bases from the Lower Yangtze. Science, 323: 1607–1610CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Guan H Z, Qi J M, Zhou Y C, Jiang Y L. (2005). Brief analysis for the origin of Chinese sorghum (in Chinese). Seed, 4: 76–79Google Scholar
  17. Guedes J D. (2011). Millets, rice, social complexity, and the spread of agriculture to the Chengdu Plain and Southwest China. Rice, 4: 104–113CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Guedes J D. (2013). Adaptation and Invention during the Spread of Agriculture to Southwest China. Doctoral Dissertation. Massachusetts: Harvard UniversityGoogle Scholar
  19. Guedes J D, Jiang M, He K Y, Wu X H, Jiang Z H. 2013a. Site of Baodun yields earliest evidence for the spread of rice and foxtail millet agriculture to south-west China. Antiquity, 87: 758–771CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Guedes J D, Lu H L, Li, Y X, Spengler R N, Wu X H, Aldenderfer M S. 2013b. Moving agriculture onto the Tibetan Plateau: The archaeobotanical evidence. Archaeol Anthropol Sci, 6: 255–269CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Guedes J D, Butler E E. (2014). Modeling constraints on the spread of agriculture to Southwest China with thermal niche models. Quat Int, 349: 29–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Guedes J D, Lu H L, Hein A M, Schmidt A H. (2015). Early evidence for the use of wheat and barley as staple crops on the margins of the Tibetan Plateau. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 112: 5625–5630CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hu Y W, Wang S G, Luan F S, Wang C S, Richards M P. (2008). Stable isotope analysis of humans from Xiaojingshan site: Implications for understanding the origin of millet agriculture in China. J Archaeol Sci, 35: 2960–2965CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hunt H V, Linden M V, Liu X Y, Matuzeviciute G M, Colledge S, Jones M K. (2008). Millets across Eurasia: Chronology and context of early records of the genera Panicum and Setaria from archaeological sites in the old World. Veg Hist Archaeobot, 17: 5–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Huo W. (2009). New archaeological discovery and revelation of the prehistoric agriculture in the Chengdu Plain (in Chinese). Chin Culture Forum, S2: 11–27Google Scholar
  26. IA, CASS (Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences). (1991). Radiocarbon Dates in Chinese Archaeology (1965–1991) (in Chinese). Beijing: Cultural Relics PressGoogle Scholar
  27. Jia X, Dong G H, Li H, Brunson K, Chen F H, Ma M M. (2013). The development of agriculture and its impact on cultural expansion during the late Neolithic in the Western Loess Plateau, China. Holocene, 23: 85–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Jiang M, Dai Y, Zhang Q, He K Y. (2009). The 2009 year tentative flotation results analysis report of Baodun site in Xinjin county (in Chinese). Chengdu Archaeol Discov, 0: 68–82Google Scholar
  29. Jin G Y, Zheng T X, Liu C J, Wang C M, Gao M K. (2011). An important military city of the Early Western Zhou Dynasty: Archaeobotanical evidence from the Chenzhuang site, Gaoqing, Shandong Province. Chin Sci Bull, 57: 253–260CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Jin H T, Liu X, Min R, Li X R, Wu X H. (2014). Results and analysis of flotation in Dadunzi site in Yuanmou county, Yunnan Province (in Chinese). Jianghan Archaeol, 3: 109–114Google Scholar
  31. Jones M, Hunt H, Lightfoot E, Lister D, Liu X Y, Matuzeviciute G M. (2011). Food globalization in prehistory. World Archaeol, 43: 665–675CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Kan Y. (1981). Baiyangcun site in Binchuan, Yunnan Province (in Chinese). Acta Archaeol Sin, 3: 349–368Google Scholar
  33. Lee G A, Crawford G W, Liu L, Chen X C. (2007). Plants and people from the Early Neolithic to Shang periods in North China. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 104: 1087–1092CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Lee-Thorp J A. (2008). On isotopes and old bones. Archaeometry, 50: 925–950CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Lev-Yadun S, Gopher A, Abbo S. (2000). The cradle of agriculture. Science, 288: 1602–1603CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Li X Q, Zhou X Y, Zhou J, Dodson J, Zhang H B, Shang X. (2007). The earliest archaeobiological evidence of the broadening agriculture in China recorded at Xishanping site in Gansu Province. Sci China Ser D-Earth Sci, 50: 1707–1714CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Liu C J, Kong Z C, Lang S D. (2004). The crop remains at Dadiwan site and the human subsistence environment investigation (in Chinese). Cult Relics Central China, 4: 26–30Google Scholar
  38. Liu E Y, Xiong S F. (1993). Excavation Report of Tonggushan Site in Pu’an County, Guizhou Province (in Chinese). Guiyang: Guizhou National Publishing House. 65–67Google Scholar
  39. Liu X, Dai Z P. (2008). The 3000 yr BP cave life: Shifodong site in Gengma county (in Chinese). Chin Cult Herit, 6: 65–67Google Scholar
  40. Lu H Y, Liu Z X, Wu N Q, Berne S, Saito Y, Liu B Z, Wang L. (2002). Rice domestication and climatic change: Phytolith evidence from East China. Boreas, 31: 378–385CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Lu H Y, Liu K B. 2003a. Morphological variations of lobate phytoliths from grasses in China and the south-eastern United States. Divers Distribut, 9: 73–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Lu H Y, Liu K B. 2003b. Phytoliths of common grasses in the coastal environments of southeastern USA. Estuar Coast Shelf Sci, 58: 587–600CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Lu H Y. (1998). Quaternary environmental changes recorded by magnetic susceptibility and plant fossils: Quantitative estimates of paleoclimates (in Chinese). Doctoral Dissertation. Beijing: Institute of Geology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, ChinaGoogle Scholar
  44. Lu H Y, Wu N Q, Yang X D, Jiang H, Liu K B, Liu T S. (2006). Phytoliths as quantitative indicators for the reconstruction of past environmental conditions in China I: Phytolith-based transfer functions. Quat Sci Rev, 25: 945–959CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Lu H Y, Zhang J P, Liu K B, Wu N Q, Li Y M, Zhou K S, Ye M L, Zhang T Y, Zhang H J, Yang X Y, Shen L C, Xu D K, Li Q. 2009a. Earliest domestication of common millet (Panicum miliaceum) in East Asia extended to 10000 years ago. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 106: 7367–7372CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lu H Y, Zhang J P, Wu N Q, Liu K B, Xu D K, Li Q. 2009b). Phytoliths analysis for the discrimination of Foxtail millet (Setaria italica) and Common millet (Panicum miliaceum). PloS One, 4: e4448CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Ma M M, Dong G H, Lightfoot E, Wang H, Liu X Y, Jia X. (2014). Stable isotope analysis of human and faunal remains in the Western Loess Plateau, Approximately 2000 cal BC. Archaeometry, 56: 237–255CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Ma M M, Dong G H, Liu X Y, Lightfoot E, Chen F H, Wang H, Li H, Jones M K. (2013). Stable isotope analysis of human and animal remains at the Qijiaping Site in Middle Gansu, China. Int J Osteoarchaeol, 25: 923–934CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Madella M, Alexandre A, Ball T. (2005). International code for phytolith nomenclature 1.0. Ann Bot, 96: 253–260CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Pearsall D M, Chandler E K, Zeidler J A. (2004). Maize in ancient Ecuador: Results of residue analysis of stone tools from the Real Alto site. J Archaeol Sci, 31: 423–442CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Piperno D R. (1988). Phytolith Analysis-An Archaeological and Geological Perspective. San Diego: Academic Press. 280Google Scholar
  52. Piperno D R, Weiss E, Holst I, Nadel D. (2004). Processing of wild cereal grains in the Upper Palaeolithic revealed by starch grain analysis. Nature, 430: 670–673CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Piperno D R. 2006. Phytolith: A Comprehensive Guide for Archaeologists and Paleoecologists. New York: Alta Mira Press. 1–238Google Scholar
  54. Qiang S. (2001). Weeds (in Chinese). Beijing: China Agriculture Press. 1–2Google Scholar
  55. Runge F. (1999). The opal phytolith inventory of soils in central Africa— Quantities, shapes, classification, and spectra. Rev Palaeobot Palynol, 107: 23–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Reimer P J, Baillie M G L, Bard E, Bayliss A, Beck J W, Blackwell P G, Bronk Ramsey C, Buck C E, Burr G S, Edwards R L, Friedrch M, Grootes P M, Guilderson T P, Hajdas I, Heaton T J, Hogg A G, Hughen K A, Kaiser K F, Kromer B, Mccormac F G, Manning S W, Reimer R W, Richards D A, Southon J R, Talamo S, Turney C S, Vanderplicht J, Weyhenmeyer C E. (2009). IntCal09 and Marine09 radiocarbon age calibration curve, 0–50000 years cal a BP. Radiocarbon, 51: 1111–1150CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Shi X B. (2000). The ecological characteristics of Xiachuan culture and the origin of the millet agriculture (in Chinese). Archaeol Cult Relics, 4: 17–35Google Scholar
  58. Spengler R, Frachetti M, Doumani P, Rouse L, Cerasetti B, Bullion E, Mar’yashev A. (2014). Early agriculture and crop transmission among Bronze Age mobile pastoralists of Central Eurasia. Proc Biol Sci, 281: 257–268CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Stuiver M, Reimer P J. (1993). Extended 14C Data Base and Revised Calib 3.0 14C Age Calibration Program. Radiocarbon, 35: 215–230CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Sun H. (2009). The evolution of the prehistoric grain types in Sichuan basin- mainly from the archaeological culture information interaction (in Chinese). Chin Cult Forum, 1: 147–154Google Scholar
  61. Tafuri M A, Craig O E, Canci A. (2009). Stable isotope evidence for the consumption of millet and other plants in Bronze Age Italy. Am J Phys Anthropol, 139: 146–153CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Twiss P C, Suess E, Smith R M. (1969). Division S-5-soil genesis, morphology, and classification (morphological classification of grasses phytolith). Soil Sci Soc Amer Proc, 33: 109–115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Wang Q. (2014). Plant remains analysis at Xueshan site in Chengjiang county, Yunnan Province (in Chinese). Master Dissertation. Jinan: Shandong University. 1–60Google Scholar
  64. Wang W M, Ding J L, Shu J W, Chen W. (2010). Exploration of early rice farming in China. Quat Int, 227: 22–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Wang Y J, Liu B Z, Lu H Y. (1998). Application of phytolith study in marine geology in China. Acta Oceanol Sin, 20: 81–89Google Scholar
  66. Wu W X, Liu D S. (2001). Cold events and the birth of Chinese civilization around 4000 BP (in Chinese). Quat Res, 5: 443–451Google Scholar
  67. Xue Y N. (2010). Pilot study of plant remains about Haimenkou site in Jianchuan County, Yunnan Province (in Chinese). Master Dissertation. Beijing: Peking University. 1–157Google Scholar
  68. Yan X. (2013). The floatation result and analysis of Zhengjiabai site in Langzhong county, Sichuan Province-concurrently talk about the Pre-Qin Period Carbonized plant remains in Sichuan region (in Chinese). Sichuan Cult Relics, 4: 74–85Google Scholar
  69. Yang X Y, Yu J C, Lu H Y, Cui T X, Guo J N, Ge Q S. (2009). Starch grain analysis reveals function of grinding stone tools at Shangzhai site, Beijing. Sci China Ser D-Earth Sci, 52: 1164–1171CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Yang X Y, Jiang L P. (2010). Starch grain analysis reveals ancient diet at Kuahuqiao site, Zhejiang Province. Chin Sci Bull, 55: 1150–1156CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Yang X Y, Wan Z W, Perry L, Lu H Y, Wang Q, Zhao C H, Li J, Xie F, Yu J C, Cui T X, Wang T, Li M Q, Ge Q S. (2012). Early millet use in northern China. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 109: 3726–3730CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. You X L. (1976). Some views of unearthed rice and bones from the fourth cultural layer of Hemudu site (in Chinese). Cult Relic, 8: 20–23Google Scholar
  73. Yu M Z, Xia W. (2015). Agricultural archaeological research discussion in Sichuan basin during early Qin period (in Chinese). J Xihua Univ, 1: 41–47Google Scholar
  74. Zhang J, Lu H Y, Wu N Q, Li F J, Yang X Y, Wang W L. (2010). Phytolith evidence for rice cultivation and spread in Mid-Late Neolithic archaeological sites in central North China. Boreas, 39: 592–602Google Scholar
  75. Zhang J N, Xia Z K, Zhang X H. (2014). Research on charred plant remains from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age in Luoyang Basin. Chin Sci Bull, 59: 3388–3397CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Zhang X Q. (1996). The origin and development of prehistoric rice-based agriculture in the middle Yangtze River (in Chinese). Agric History China, 3: 18–22Google Scholar
  77. Zhang X L, Qiu S H, Cai L Z, Bo G C, Zhong J, Wang J X, Yang J G. (2005). Radiocarbon dating report (31) (in Chinese). Archaeology, 7: 18–22Google Scholar
  78. Zhao X F, Zhang H R, Luo E H. (2006). The Shang and Zhou Dynasties site of Wujiadaping in Xianning County, Guizhou Province (in Chinese). Archaeology, 8: 28–39Google Scholar
  79. Zhao Z J, Pearsall D M, Benfer R A, Piperno D R. (1998). Distinguishing rice (Oryza sativa poaceae) from wild Oryza species through phytolith analysis, II Finalized method. Econ Botany, 52: 134–145CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Zhao Z J. (2003). The flotation results report of Mopandi site, Yunnan Province. Yunnan Province Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology. The 2001 excavation report appendix of Caiyuanzi and Mopandi sites, Yunnan Province (in Chinese). Acta Archaeol Sin, 2: 28–39Google Scholar
  81. Zhao Z J. (2004). The fieldwork method of archaeobotanic-flotation (in Chinese). Archaeology, 3: 80–87Google Scholar
  82. Zhao Z J. (2006). The flotation results report of Jigongshan site in Xianning county, Guizhou Province: The prehistoric to Han dynasty site in Xianning county, Guizhou Province (in Chinese). Beijing: Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social SciencesGoogle Scholar
  83. Zhao Z J. (2010). New data and new issues for the study of origin of rice agriculture in China. Archaeol Anthropol Sci, 2: 99–105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Zhao Z J, Chen J. (2011). The floatation results and analysis of Yingpanshan site in Mao country, Sichuan Province (in Chinese). Cult Relics Southern China, 3: 60–67Google Scholar
  85. Zhao Z J. (2011). New archaeobotanic data for the study of the rrigins of agriculture in China. Curr Anthropol, 52: s295–s306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. ZPICRA (Zhejiang Province Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology). (2003). Hemudu-the Neolithic Age Archeological Excavation Report (in Chinese). Beijing: Cultural Relics Publishing House. 216Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Science China Press and Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • HaiMing Li
    • 1
  • XinXin Zuo
    • 2
  • LiHong Kang
    • 3
  • LeLe Ren
    • 1
  • FengWen Liu
    • 1
  • HongGao Liu
    • 1
    • 4
  • NaiMeng Zhang
    • 1
  • Rui Min
    • 3
  • Xu Liu
    • 3
  • GuangHui Dong
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Key Laboratory of Western China’s Environmental Systems (Ministry of Education), College of Earth and Environmental SciencesLanzhou UniversityLanzhouChina
  2. 2.Key Laboratory of Cenozoic Geology and Environment, Institute of Geology and GeophysicsChinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  3. 3.Yunnan Province Institute of Cultural Relics and ArchaeologyKunmingChina
  4. 4.College of Agronomy and BiotechnologyYunnan Agricultural UniversityKunmingChina

Personalised recommendations