Early agriculture and holocene environments in the Yangtze river delta, China

Susan Atahan

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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    [Truncated abstract] Environmental changes have had major impacts on past human societies across the globe, and a better understanding of this human-environment interaction is necessary for building societies with resilience towards future environmental change, and to effectively conserve areas of natural environments into the future. Regions such as the Yangtze delta, that have a long history of rice cultivation (dating to at least ca. 7000 BP) and a high density of prehistoric sites, provide an ideal backdrop to study both long-term human-environment interactions, and the environmental impacts of agricultural societies. This study aims to provide Holocene palaeoenvironmental reconstructions for three study sites in the Yangtze delta region, with the principle objectives of detecting human activity – particularly that associated with the development of rice agriculture – and identifying environmental changes within the palaeoenvironmental records. A parallel aim is to develop the use of quantitative biomarker and compound specific isotope analyses in Holocene palaeoenvironmental investigations, including in the detection of early agricultural environments, through analysis of sedimentary deposits. Palaeoenvironmental records for the three study sites, Qingpu, Guangfulin and Liangzhu, cover the time period from ca. 12,000 to ca. 400 BP. '...' Greater proportions of coniferous and deciduous taxa early in the records (prior to ca. 7000 BP) indicate comparatively cooler conditions, while the increased abundance of Chenopodiaceae during that time suggests both cooler conditions and a greater marine influence in the region. Palaeoenvironmental data obtained during this study suggest agriculture in the delta region to have gradually increased in importance from ca. 7000 – 2400 BP. The Guangfulin study site yielded the earliest evidence of agricultural activity, dating to ca. 7000 BP, principally in the form of a corresponding increase in Poaceae (Oryza comp.) abundance and decline of arboreal forest taxa. Subsequent periods of agricultural intensification are noted at ca. 5360 BP at Liangzhu and ca. 4700 BP at Guangfulin. Following the final period of intensification at Qingpu and Guangfulin (ca. 2400 BP), the extent of cultivated land in the delta region may have been comparable to modern times. Technological development during the early dynasties, particularly the greater availability of iron tools, is likely to have been a major factor driving the agricultural intensification detected ca. 2400 BP. The large tracts of natural vegetation detected by this research prior to ca. 2400 BP, would have afforded a degree of resilience to the human inhabitants of the delta region. Following the contraction of natural vegetation in the delta region, societies would have gained some resilience through access to the extensive trade network of the Chinese state. Resilience acquired through these means may, in part, account for the longevity of agricultural societies in the Yangtze delta region of China.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Publication statusUnpublished - 2007


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