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Stone Age farmers used fire and flood to create first paddy fields

(1 October 2007)

Stone Age farmers in eastern China used fire and flood control to create the first known rice paddy fields.

According to a new study, Stone Age farmers in eastern China used fire and flood control to manage coastal swamps and turn them into the first known rice paddy fields. The Durham University-led research, published in prestigious scientific journal Nature, provides a detailed insight into this Neolithic rice cultivation system. The adoption of cereal cultivation was one of the most important cultural processes in history, marking the transition from hunting and gathering by Mesolithic foragers to the food-producing economy of Neolithic farmers. Dr Yongqiang Zong, Dr Jim Innes and colleagues in China presented evidence from the earliest known Neolithic site in eastern China, around 7,700 years ago, demonstrating that communities selected lowland swamps for their rice cultivation. They suggested that, even at this early stage, rice cultivation involved high-intensity clearance and management of coastal marsh vegetation by fire. It is also likely that floodwater input to cultivated areas was controlled by humans, with artificial “bunding” used to maintain crop yields and prevent major flood damage. The site was eventually overwhelmed by the sea around 7,550 years ago, demonstrating the vulnerability of early rice production in this fertile but unstable ecosystem. These results establish that rice cultivation began in the coastal wetlands of eastern China. The authors' conclusion that incipient Neolithic groups used fire management to modify these regions may also apply to other areas, and requires further investigation. (Press release by Nature)

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