Scientists uncover 100,000 years of rice evolution: A journey from wild to domesticated

Conceptual model from rice exploitation to domestication since 30 kyr BP in the Lower Yangtze River region. Credit: Zhang Jianping.

A groundbreaking study has revealed the incredible 100,000-year history of rice evolution from wild plants to domesticated crops.

This research, published in Science, shows how rice has been continuously evolving, providing crucial insights into the development of human society and the origins of agriculture.

The study confirms that China is the birthplace of domesticated rice (Oryza sativa).

The research was conducted in the Shangshan cultural area of Zhejiang by a team from the Institute of Geology and Geophysics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (IGGCAS) and other institutions.

Their findings highlight the importance of Shangshan culture in the origins of global agriculture.

The shift from hunting and gathering to farming marked a major turning point in human history. Rice, as the staple food for half of the world’s population, has played a vital role in the development of Chinese civilization.

Scientists have long debated when and how humans began to domesticate wild rice.

Over the past century, the origin of rice has been a hot topic. It wasn’t until the 1970s, with discoveries at sites like Hemudu and Shangshan in the Yangtze River region, that the scientific community recognized this area as crucial for the origin of rice.

One of the challenges in this research has been distinguishing between wild and domesticated rice in ancient samples. Dr. Lyu Houyuan and his team at IGGCAS have spent years studying rice phytoliths—tiny silica particles found in plants.

They discovered that the number of fish-scale facets on rice bulliform phytoliths increases as rice becomes more domesticated.

Using this information, the researchers developed a method to identify wild and domesticated rice. They combined phytolith analysis with other techniques, such as pollen and charcoal analysis, soil studies, grain size examination, and archaeological excavations, to study the Shangshan site in Pujiang County and the Hehuashan site in Longyou County, Zhejiang.

By analyzing these sites, they created a continuous timeline going back about 100,000 years. Their findings showed that wild rice was widespread in the lower Yangtze region around 100,000 years ago.

About 24,000 years ago, humans began collecting wild rice, likely as a response to climate changes during the Last Glacial Maximum.

Around 13,000 years ago, humans started pre-domesticating wild rice. By 11,000 years ago, domesticated rice became more common, marking the beginning of rice farming in East Asia.

This research shows that rice agriculture in East Asia and wheat agriculture in Southwest Asia developed around the same time.

The study deepens our understanding of how agriculture began globally and highlights the complex relationship between rice, climate, human activity, and cultural development.

In summary, this 100,000-year history of rice evolution at the Shangshan site sheds light on the long and intricate process of rice domestication and its significance in human development and agricultural history.