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SHAO, Jiuhua, Hemudu Site Museum, Zhejiang Province, PR CHINA

(Agricultural Archaeology 1997(47):87-92. Scanned by Paowen Tsueh; ed. by B. Gordon)

        The discovery of the Hemudu site at Yao City in Zhejiang Province in 1973 was a big event in Chinese archaeology. After two excavations a large rice husk pile was found in a level, along with 170 bone Si plough fragments and part of a wood plow handle - a farm tool described in ancient books. This discovery not only attracted huge attention from archaeologists and agricultural historians, but advanced research on Chinese paddy rice origin by arousing discussion. Simultaneously, the Zhejiang Institute of Archaeology and city and county cultural departments, investigated the surrounding lakeshore between south Hangzhou Bay and the north slope of the Siming Mountains. Test and excavation showed a continuous archaeological sequence, especially in much cultural material of Hemudu’s 2nd and 4th stages at the Cihu, Xiangshan and Zishan excavations within 10 km of Hemudu (1). New rice agricultural finds occurred, plus new cultural traces. The author visited Hemudu many times to observe and deepen his understanding of its primitive paddy rice. The following are his points of view on several questions regarding Hemudu paddy rice origin that concern academics.


        Some origins of Chinese paddy rice, with different opinions among academics, are the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, South China and lower Yangtze and Yellow River Valleys. Most scholars favored the first origin in the 1970’s (i.e., Assam-Yunnan), but Hemudu’s excavation of large accumulations of rough rice and farm tools in the early 1970s shocked academia. When more cultivated rice remains occurred at the Luojiajiao site near Tong Village north of Hangzhou Bay dating >7000 years, scholars suggested rice originated in the lower Yangtze Valley (2). But when many paddy rice remains were found at Jiahu in Henan and Pengtoushan in Hunan in the 1980’s, the latter older than Hemudu and Lojiajiao and C14 dating 8250-9100 years on temper in potsherds (3), some scholars shifted rice origin to the middle Yangtze (4). Despite these points of view, most believe in a central origin and spread or "one origin theory". As new paddy rice remains continued to be found with further research, archaeologists and historians realized the progressively more complicated paddy rice origin was difficult to explain by the "one origin theory"; e.g., Neolithic rice remains in the lower Yangtze Valley look like they came upriver from the Hangzhou Bay center. But this contradicts the assumption of lower Yangtze Valley as a center, with spread downriver. Hence, new thinking suggests more than one origin. As domesticatible wild rice is in China, India and Asia, archaeologist Wenming Li favours independent origins in many areas because Chinese paddy rice need not originate elsewhere or have only one Chinese origin (5). As the author agrees with Li’s multi-origin theory, Hemudu on both shores of Hangzhou Bay should be especially regarded as one of the more important Chinese paddy rice origins.

        After long investigation and study, academic circles mutually agreed paddy rice origin must possess three important properties: a base of rich environmental resources for hunting, fishing and gathering; suitable natural geography for wild rice; and a dire need for humans to cultivate it. In 1952, American scholar Carl O. Saure believed "the most important trait for origin is an environment with significant complex plants and animals, plateaux, hills and forests with fresh water…early farmers were advanced fishermen living on riverbanks under temperate climate…in the shadow of hunger and without time to slowly and casually select plants...improved plants to serve a greater purpose. This could only be done after hunger was satisfied and there was more time to achieve it" (6). Much archaeological data support his scientific foresight; e.g., Hemudu’s environment 7,000 years ago was exactly as described by Saure. Cultural materials show production in advance of other similar sites, as detailed in various reports: 1st report of archaeological excavation at Hemudu site by Jun Liu & Zhongyuan Yao; China’s Hemudu culture by Huadong Lin; and Initial research on Hemudu Culture. One must emphasize Hemudu’s environment greatly differed from today’s. 29 boreholes over 3000 sq. m on its NW side in October, 1991, revealed a 0.3 m thick hard silt layer at 14.5-15.6 m depth, the same depth as nearby Yao Jiang where local government drilled 200 m east of the site for underground water. This layer supports archaeologists’ belief that the area NE of the site was a swamp 7000 years ago. Moreover, several dozen fossil goose egg fragments at 16.5-17.5 m depth show Late Pleistocene low ocean levels. Yao River was not an obstacle to Hemudu occupants on the south slope. Surface water on Ximing Mountain’s north slope flowed separately from east and west, entering the sea from south to north (7). Today, the west Jiling Brook runs south into Yao River in the south side of the site. But the 7,000 year-old goose eggs show Jiling Brook should be at the north end of the site, and ca. 400 m longer than today. This data suggests the Hemudu paddy rice origin question should be based on archaeological material and not the present situation.

        To prove Hemudu is a place of paddy rice origin, one must prove the existence of wild rice. Historically, agriculture thrived on the arable Ningshao plain, with even small hillside areas cultivated and planted. Therefore, if we want to find existing wild rice it will be like looking for a needle in a haystack. However, not finding wild rice today does not mean that there was no wild rice at Hemudu 7000 years ago. "In China today, wild rice is distributed as far north as 28ºN.Lat." (8). Hemudu at 29º 50´N.Lat. is exactly on the edge of this distribution. But Hemudu climate 7000 years ago was a lot warmer than today, excavated animal and plant remains showing it was south tropical, with mean annual temperature and rainfall 3-4º and ca. 800 cm higher, like China’s Hainan Island, Vietnam and the Nile Valley (9), an environment very suited to wild rice. In fact, China’s earliest rice husk remains at Pengtoushan and Jiahu prove wild rice was growing as far north as 30ºN.Lat. Chinese and Japanese scholars cooperated on detailed research on this Hemudu data. Using comparative archaeological technique and a computer, "electron microscopy of 81 carbonized rice grains analyzed in Japan show 4 of different shape were wild rice. Also, several grain fragments that cannot be positively identified as wild, have different traits than cultivated rice (10)", a reliable conclusion, according to long-term research by the Chinese Paddy Rice Research Institute and Japanese geneticists. ShoulingYuo believes "people living near wild rice will try to domesticate it" (11). Rice husks at Hemudu result from continuous cultivation and domestication.

        Secondly, paddy rice cultivation is a form of cultural template - its dissemination is not isolated and it is a complicated activity. As dissemination also includes traits like farm and household tools and daily customs, entire remains must be studied. Until now, the vast age difference between more recent Yunnan rice remains and those at Hemudu make comparison very difficult. While Jiahu culture resembles Peiligang, its cultural rhythm and growth sequence is unlike Hemudu. In 1988, Hunan Archaeology Research Institute found Pengtoushan houses on wet swampy land, where footings were cushioned with a 50 cm layer of dirt and a layer of either red burnt or black ashy earth. It is unclear whether houses were terraced on embedded stilts or ground level. Constructionwise, Pengtoushan and Hemudu cultures have different origin. Most Pengtoushan pots are also incompletely fired, with bodies black inside and red-brown outside. Most are decorated with cord-marking, indentation or rowing pattern on mainly cauldrons, high-necked or double-handled or deep bodied jars, bowls, pans, footed stands (12), etc. Most Hemudu pots are mixed black clay, with mixed red clay only in level 2, while surfaces are cord-marked, indented and matted, but also with clear rice leaf pattern or plant diagram. Most pots are cauldrons, double-handled jars, pans and basins, without high-necked or deep bodied jars; i.e., many similaries reflect identical conditions, as pots of different type and decoration denote individual culture. Anping Pei says "Pengtoushan has the earliest rice remains to date, not just the earliest area but an indicator of East China’s first agriculture, a phenomenon allowed by favorable climate and environment (13)." It is more proper to consider Hemudu as an independent and more progressive agricultural area.



        Hemudu’s many rice remains and farm tools show agricultural growth in understanding paddy rice origin. "Before this, there would have been a transition not shorter than 2000-3000 years [14]", when the question of its paddy rice origin began. On the lower Yangtze River, paddy rice remains earlier than Hemudu are at Lojiajiao Corner in Tong Village, C-14 dated ca. 7100 years (15). Its excavator, Jung Liu, believes both sites "were very similar initially, but with significant differences and origins from two cultures with different traits (16). Hemudu culture was distributed from Yushao Plain in eastern Zhejiang to the Danshan Islands. Archaeological investigation and testing at Bazi Bridge at Yuboa, Zihu, Tongjiao at Zici, Lushan at Yuyao, Mingshan in Fungha, Xianshan, Tashan, etc., show they pre-date late Hemudu stage 1. Their material resembles Hemudu but with few primitive artifacts; i.e., Hemudu fine bone and ivory carvings are rare, but archaeologists and ethnologists believe they are precious totems or ceremonials boldly portraying Hemudu as a 7000-year-old clan or tribal center surrounded by its descendants. But we can only analyse archaeological material to search for Hemudu paddy rice origin.

        Agricultural historians believed the earliest cultivated plants were not grass family but those with tuberous roots because they are easy to grow and need little maintenance. But they need varying seasons because their roots store nutrients in winter as tubers. As Hemudu is on the north subtropical border at 30° N.Lat., it has this seasonal requirement, but tubers easily decompose and are absent. Plant carvings on two potsherds have 3 & 5-leaf patterns like a rhizome leaf of a banana, a fruit still grown in east Zhejiang, but at bottom are several dots like long taro root hairs. Historically, taro roots have always been the main stable in vast south China.

        An east Zhejiang folk proverb says "taro made into cake is good as rice", and it is still a popular food. As ancient people generally liked to depict familiar daily things in their carvings, Hemudu people depicted their struggle for survival with the lively taro, which provided warmth and nourishment. Both potsherds are proof that Hemudu people cultivated tubers even after rice cultivation.

        Further analysis of the 20-50 cm thick rough rice piles at Hemudu (mainly upper level 4) allow us to understand past degrees of rice farming. Charred rough rice occurs in one or several layers of mixed husks, stalks and leaves [17]. More understanding of rough rice levels began after the second excavation, a more concrete differentiation of another level than the first. "Absolute age of the first stage of level 4 cultural remains, including sublevels A and B, is 7000-6500 years" [18], but most rough rice is in sublevel A due to preservation. Sublevel A is mainly gray-black, soft, loose and especially thick at 42-106 cm. Its especially rich remains of pits and gray, yellow and white sticky fine sand has flint chips and rice husks, stalks and leaves. As each level is 2-10 cm apart, with a total discontinuous thickness >1 m [19], we can tell accumulation did not form in 1-2 years but much longer, as seen in C14 dating. T232 rough rice (4) dates 6895±130 (4845 BC), but carbonized rice grains in potsherds from the same level date 6740±130 (4790 BC) [20], a difference of 155 years. Grains in top and bottom of the pile differ by >100 years, but it could be several hundred. Hemudu people harvested very little rough rice, while the number of bone Si ploughs was very few, an estimate coinciding with the number of bone harvesting sickles and wood-processing and husk-removing poles. We should not see the rough rice pile as reserve storage, but where husks were removed indoors and grain taken from stalks for consumption, a method different from normal grain or stalk storage. This mixed pile and casual storage is a trait of early stage farming.

        While the Pengtoushan, Jiahu and Hemudu sites represent three different cultures, they all have mixed cord-marked carbon black pottery, an early craft resulting in thick and sturdy walls. This cultural coincidence was not a result of assimilation from either north or south, or influenced by mutual exchanges. It only meant that agriculture was not developed individually, but borne under the foundation of collective overall progress in large surroundings. After detailed research on Hemudu culture, Juin Liu, Head of Zhejiang Institute of Archaeology, thinks the distinct shouldered axe in its 1st stage was found at surrounding sites, meaning the possibility of hamlets earlier than Hemudu [21]. But Hemudu primitive agriculture developed independently.

        I think the most prosperous period of Hemudu primitive agriculture is 6000 year-old level 3. In spring 1994, my institute discovered a Neolithic site on Xiangjiashan’s south slope contemporary with Hemudu levels 2 & 3 ca. 1 km away. While 200 bone, stone, wood and pot fragments and rice husks occurred over 600 sq. m, most encouraging was a 34.5x16x2 cm rectangular wooden rice-weeding tool. A trough in the middle of its handle is 12.2x6.4x1 cm, its bottom very smooth from use and its surface having traces of axe marks. East Zhejiang farmers used this tool until the 1950’s. It also occurs at the Zihu and Zishan sites, both 10-km NE and NW of Hemudu. Its new style surrounding Hemudu indicates the start of progressive farm technology and prosperous agricultural growth.

        We can sketch Hemudu’s incipient agriculture and growth through the planting of tuberous plants and wild rice, domesticating irrigated rice and large irrigated paddies.

3. Opinion on Si ploughs

        While most scholars believe 170 bone fragments in Hemudu’s dual excavations are Si plough remains [22], they also think bone is too soft, brittle and easily broken when used for digging. After careful examination, some suggest "dissimilar use of those with prickmarks on both blade sides being digging tools vs. those with slanted or straight blades [24]", with straight blades most likely representing Si ploughs. Some accept Hemudu’s large rice pile as domesticated. As paddy rice is aquatic in nature, fields must have been leveled and bordered by dikes to maintain water supply in droughts or rainy seasons. The winter 1994 Sino-Japanese joint finding of level 4 (3.7m deep) paddy rice phytoliths inside the site’s north edge show the surrounding hamlet must had extended ca. 100 m along the lake. The multi-layered rice piles and many Si ploughs result from the birth and growth of rice agriculture.

        Of my institute’s 101 bone Si plough fragments, 3 are from the first excavation and 98 from the second (41 of level 4A, 35 level 4B & 22 from other levels), with 4B fragments slightly bigger than 4A, plus other differences. Fragments of straight, slanted and columnar blades occur, the last dominant. As the outer edge of the columnar blade is normal, the polished and processed inside edge show we should not consider it as broken from a straight blade. Hemudu paddies were on the lakeshore, the sticky but soft soil easy when the small surface of the Si columnar plough is tilted. It was also used for excavating dikes, undoubtedly making it a tool for paddy rice farming. Past agronomists thought ancient farmers used "slash and burn agriculture in conjunction with the Si plough". But past environments varied considerably and slash and burn was absent in Hemudu swamp. As the Si plough was first used, it’s precise to label "Si plough agriculture" at Hemudu.

        On the question of the origin of agriculture, there is the view that gathering is its predecessor. American scholar Mark Cohen thinks most hunting-gathering communities gather surrounding plants, understanding their growth and environmental needs in order to ensure their survival. Part of their harvest would often and unknowingly be replanted, allowing it to propagate. Cohen thinks gatherers and agriculture existed simultaneously [26], a viewpoint coinciding with paddy rice multi-origin theory. If so, what is the border between gathering and agriculture and what indicates incipient agriculture? It should be farm tools, their appearance meaning humans practiced agriculture and understood crop rhythm. To raise productivity they created a better plant environment. Hemudu paddy rice co-occurred with bone Si ploughs, their delicate workmanship demonstrating their importance, especially in level 4B where most were polished and shoulder-bored with parallel rows of holes. On their handle down, there is a shallow 3x10 cm trough ending and beginning with a 1 cm hole. Blades were straight or pricked bifacially. After shaping, troughing, boring and polishing, a strongly attached wood handle made it a desirable farm tool. It resembled the later shuffle and was the earliest essential grass weeder in the paddy field and for digging irrigation trenches. As it was a product of Hemudu swamp farming, it was invented by early farmers if agriculture rose through gathering, arriving unknowingly and unintentionally. As the quest for farm tools is crucial to researching agricultural origin, there are earlier remains in other sites but there are no older bone Si ploughs or paddy tools. Hence, Hemudu site still holds an important research position in paddy rice origin.


[1] Huang, Weijin: Important achievement at Xiangjiashan Neolithic excavation. China Cultural Feature Reports, 1994, December 4th.

[2] Chen, Wenhua: Several questions on the origin of Chinese paddy rice. Agricultural Archaeology, 1989, vol. 2.

[3] [12] Pei, Anping: Lixians Pengtoushan Neolithic site. China Archaeology Yearbook, p. 205, 1989.

[4] Wei, Si: Macroscopic perspective in prehistoric Chinese paddy rice culture. Agricultural Archaeology, 1995, vol. 1.

[5] [8] Yan, Wenmin: More discussion on the origin of China paddy rice agriculture. Agricultural Archaeology, 1989, vol. 2.

[6] Suo Er (Carl Saure): The origin of agriculture and its dissemination. Quote from Zhang, guangzhi:Kaogu. Discussion of archaeology topic no. 6, p. 27.

[7] Wu, Wei Tong: 7000 years of rice evolution and spread on the Yangtze River. Kaogu. Discussion no. 6. Geographical Science, 1983, vol. 3, September.

[9] Lin, Chengkun: Neolithic palaeogeography and paddy rice origin and distribution on the middle and lower Yangtze & Qiantang Rivers. Agricultural Archaeology 1987, vol. 1.

[10] Zhejiang Daily News. 1991, August 31st.

[11] Yao, Zhaoling: Historical treatise on Paddy Rice, p. 15.

[13] [14] Pei, Anping: Pengtoushan paddy rice remains in prehistoric Chinese paddy rice agriculture. Agricultural Archaeology, 1989, vol. 2.

[15] Luojiajiao site excavation report. Zhejiang Province Cultural Features, Archaeology Research Publication, 1981.

[16] [18] [19] Liu, Jun, Yaozhongyuan: Chinas Hemudu site.

[17] Report on Hemudu site excavation. Archaeology Journal, 1978, vol. 1.

[20] Chinese Archaeology C14 data sets.

[21] [25] Liu, Jun: Ten years of Zhejiang Neolithic archaeology. Zhejiang Province Cultural Features, Institute of Archaeology Study Publication, 1993.

[22] You, Xioling: Several views on excavated rough rice and bone Si ploughs in Hemudu level 4.

[23] Wang, Zuosheng: Discussion of Si ploughs and related questions of Hemudu culture. International Conference on 100 Yues History: Discussion.

[24] Hua, Quan: Some points of view on bone farm tools at Hemudu site.

[26] Mark Cohen: Population pressure and agricultural origin. Southeast culture 1991, vol. 6.(p.92).

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