- First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies by P. S. Bellwood, and: The Peopling of East Asia: Putting Together Archaeology, Linguistics and Genetics ed. by L. Sagart, R. Blench, and A. Sanchez-Mazas, and: The Origins of Pottery and Agriculture ed. by Y. Yasuda
The Garden of Eden or Vavilov’s El Dorado?
A review of recent thoughts on the origins of agriculture in mainland East Asia
Numerous texts, edited volumes, and monographs from around the world address the origins and consequences of agricultural life. [End Page 321] Three volumes have emerged that re-evaluate the context, timing, and manner of agricultural evolution in mainland East Asia. The volumes coalesce under a narrow topical and theoretical range, but together they bring the complexities of current research on agricultural origins in China to a much wider audience. To some degree, all are concerned with the details of when and where agriculture originated, but vary in approach to the treatment of these details. All are also somewhat concerned with process and explanation, but vary widely in their commitment to the theoretical underpinnings of these explanations and the degree to which archaeological, linguistic, genetic, and paleo-environmental data are marshaled to support them. Together, these three books enrich our understanding of agricultural origins in mainland East Asia and demonstrate that the study of agricultural origins in China is an international and multidisciplinary program with worldwide appeal. If the point of studying major behavioral transitions is to gather wisdom about the nature of human adaptations at the level of entire populations facing climatic, environmental, and social anomalies, then it is now clear that the transition to agriculture in China must be part of the debate. Furthermore, as the evolutionary path to independent food production in East Asia looks increasingly distinct from other parts of the world, the universality of our explanations, or at least the scale to which they are applied, must also be reconsidered.
These three books are concerned primarily with the origin of agriculture, and by extension also examine the origins of civilization and complex society, race and ethnicity, language, and nation. Within the confines of early and middle Holocene East Asia, they provide a solid foundation in the material correlates of origins, homelands, diffusion, and migration. The foundation for the Western version of genesis and diffusion lies in agricultural origin myths that reveal widespread commitment to singular, knowable origins (Harlan 1992 : 31–35). Some of the first scientific contrasts to this Garden of Eden narrative focused on the origins of cultivated plants (de Candolle 1886; Vavilov 1926). Nikolai Vavilov reasoned that plant cultivation and selective breeding began in areas where the greatest crop diversity could be found today. From this he concluded there were numerous independent centers of plant domestication around the world. Despite the strength of Vavilov’s influence on the study of prehistory (Harris 1990), the earliest agriculture in East Asia and the Chinese Neolithic as a whole were often attributed to Western inspiration (Bishop 1933; Eberhard 1937; Ward 1954). K. C. Chang (1963 : 75–76; 1973 : 527–528; 1976 : 12) argued vehemently for the independence of the developments discovered in China. A similar campaign would seem anachronistic today, yet conflict over the number, location, age, and direction of influence between the various centers of origin dominate current research on the origin of agriculture in mainland East Asia. Here I focus on pieces from each of these volumes that pertain to this discussion.
The Origins of Pottery and Agriculture (Yasuda 2002) is a rare collection of full-color photographs and essays by a multinational group of authors assembled to proclaim that “the origins of pottery and agriculture in the East precede their origins in the West” (Yasuda, 10). The...