Rice farming is supposed to have arrived from China in 2000 BC, but new research by British and Indian experts shows it existed in India centuries earlier, and suggests systems of seasonal crop variation that would have provided a rich and diverse diet for the Bronze Age residents of the Indus valley.
The research on archaeological sites of the ancient Indus Civilisation, which stretched across what is now Pakistan and northwest India during the Bronze Age, has revealed that domesticated rice farming in South Asia began far earlier than previously believed, and may have developed in tandem with - rather than as a result of - rice domestication in China.
The research also confirms that Indus populations were the earliest people to use complex multi-cropping strategies across both seasons, growing foods during summer (rice, millets and beans) and winter (wheat, barley and pulses), which required different watering regimes.
The findings suggest a network of regional farmers supplied assorted produce to the markets of the civilisation's ancient cities, a release from the University of Cambridge said on Monday.
Researchers at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Benares Hindu University found evidence of domesticated rice in South Asia as much as 430 years earlier. It has been published in the journals ‘Antiquity’ and ‘Journal of Archaeological Science’.
Evidence for very early rice use has been known from the site of Lahuradewa in the central Ganges basin, but it has long been thought that domesticated rice agriculture did not reach South Asia until towards the end of the Indus era, when the wetland rice arrived from China around 2000 BC.
“We found evidence for an entirely separate domestication process in ancient South Asia, likely based around the wild species Oryza nivara. This led to the local development of a mix of 'wetland' and 'dryland' agriculture of local Oryza sativa indica rice agriculture before the truly 'wetland' Chinese rice, Oryza sativa japonica, arrived around 2000 BC,” says study co-author Jennifer Bates.
“While wetland rice is more productive, and took over to a large extent when introduced from China, our findings appear to show there was already a long-held and sustainable culture of rice production in India as a widespread summer addition to the winter cropping during the Indus civilisation.”
The archaeologists sifted for traces of ancient grains in the remains of several Indus villages within a few kilometres of the site called Rakhigari: the most recently excavated of the Indus cities that may have maintained a population of some 40,000.
As well as the winter staples of wheat and barley and winter pulses like peas and vetches, they found evidence of summer crops including domesticated rice, but also millet and the tropical beans urad and horsegram.
They used radiocarbon dating to provide the first absolute dates for Indus multi-cropping: 2890-2630 BC for millets and winter pulses, 2580-2460 BC for horsegram, and 2430-2140 BC for rice.