An early history of rice

fuller_riceWhen did rice change the planet? Rice is the most important food crop on earth, feeding more than half of all humans. Most is produced in Asia in the flooded paddy systems that form the core of the most intensively-managed of all ancient agricultural anthromes, the rice villages, where its high productivity in response to sophisticated irrigation schemes and traditional fertilizers helped drive the early rise of powerful and sophisticated civilizations across Asia- where most people still live. Moreover, rice paddies produce methane- a potent greenhouse gas that may have driven early changes in global climate (Ruddiman et al., 2008).

Now, recent work by Dorian Fuller, an archeobotanist, and his team at the University College London, is filling in the story of rice from multiple directions using genetics and archaeological data to map the emergence and spread of rice in all of its varied production systems. The data support the early domestication of rice in the Yangtze basin of China and “a largely separate trajectory” of rice cultivation in the Ganges plains of India. Most importantly, the work suggests that “rice reached most of its historical range of important cultivation by the Iron Age” (circa 1200 BC).

So when did rice change the planet? The evidence is growing that even 5000 years ago rice cultivation was extensive enough to produce methane sufficient to change global climate (Ruddiman et al., 2008)- and Fuller will soon produce numbers for this.

Not to mention that rice has helped sustain Asian population growth and the rise of complex societies for millennia- and these represent perhaps the greatest force of human nature so far.



Fuller, D., Y.-I. Sato, C. Castillo, L. Qin, A. Weisskopf, E. Kingwell-Banham, J. Song, S.-M. Ahn, and J. van Etten. 2010. Consilience of genetics and archaeobotany in the entangled history of rice. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 2:115-131.

Ruddiman, W., Z. Guo, X. Zhou, H. Wu, and Y. Yu. 2008. Early rice farming and anomalous methane trends. Quaternary Science Reviews 27:1291-1295.