Archaeobotanical investigations on the role of agriculture in social changes: case studies of the Central Plain and Haidai Region, China, from the Late Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age

The long-term response of ancient societies and agriculture to climate change has been a matter of global debate. In the Central Plain and Haidai Region of China, the period from the Late Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age (ca. 2400-1046 cal. BCE) was important for both cultural evolution and climatic change. Culturally, the chiefdom-like Late Neolithic Longshan culture (2400-1800 cal. BCE) showed the trend of collapse around 2100/2000 cal. BCE in the East-Haidai and around 1800 cal. BCE in the West-Haidai whereas the Longshan and Xinzhai cultures (2300-1750 cal. BCE) in the Central Plain exclusively stepped into a state-level new era around 1750 cal. BCE. Paleoclimatically, this period witnessed several climatic fluctuations, especially the profound cool and drought event occurring around 2200 BCE. The remarkable decline in the rainfall and temperature after the 2200 BCE climatic event clearly affected natural conditions for agriculture and directly impacted a society’s ability to produce stable grain yields. This circumstance is apparently a limiting factor for social development in given regions. However, there is no simple correlation between climatic deterioration and social collapse. In the case of this research, the earliest states emerged in the Central Plain when environmental factors appear to be less than optimal. Such a case dictates that it is of great value to re-assess the relationship between social transformations and climatic changes. In this Ph.D. project, agriculture has been chosen to re-evaluate the social evolution of these Late Neolithic societies since it can reshape societies by adjusting and overcoming environmental constraints and potentials. The results are presented in the form of a cumulative dissertation composed of four papers. Rather than ranging broadly overview of the whole Central Plain, a case study of the crop water management and the crop processing method in the Xinzhai settlement is presented in the first two contributions. It shows that the settlement formed an irrigated wet rice farming and a rainfed millet dry farming. This result is further used to interpret the concentration of rice in central settlements: due to the extra inputs of labour and time in irrigation, rice became a prestige food and closely related to elites and regional centres. Meanwhile, the processing of crops was organized on small units of household which is of distinctive difference with the other Xinzhai period sites. This diversification in the social organization with some sites keeping the communal organization but some shifting to households is different from the unified communal organization in the Yangshao period (5000-2500 cal. BCE) but similar to the pattern in the Longshan (2300-1900 cal. BCE) and Erlitou-Shang periods (1750-1046 cal. BCE). The third paper serves as a regional overview of archaeobotanical data in the Central Plain. While entering the Early Bronze Age, the Erlitou societies developed a similar agricultural system with the Xinzhai period but a change of an abrupt increase of wheat occurred since the Early Shang period (1550-1300 cal. BCE). This consistency and change in agriculture can be interpreted through the practice of irrigation. The last paper acts as a comparative study of agriculture between the West- and East- Haidai. Unlike the agricultural technique in the Central Plain, the different social transformations while facing huge climatic changes are attributed to the specific resilience of rice farming and millet farming. Furthermore, different agricultural strategies such as population migration to new ecological areas and agricultural extensification to maintain crop production also contributed to the social changes. To sum up, a diverse but very important role of agriculture can be proposed underlying the social changes during the Late Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age in this Ph.D. research.


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