London | Rice farming in India began far earlier than thought, according to new research on sites of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation, which shows that domestication of the staple crop in the country may have developed in tandem with 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 ancient cities of the Indus Valley civilisation, which stretched across what is now Pakistan and northwest India during the Bronze Age.
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.
Researchers, including those from Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in Uttar Pradesh and the University of Oxford in the UK, found evidence of domesticated rice in South Asia as much as 430 years earlier.
“We found evidence for an entirely separate domestication process in ancient South Asia, likely based around the wild species Oryza nivara,” said Jennifer Bates from University of Cambridge in the UK.
“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,” said 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,” she said.
The location of the Indus in a part of the world that received both summer and winter rains may have encouraged the development of seasonal crop rotation before other major civilisations of the time, such as Ancient Egypt and China’s Shang Dynasty, said Cameron Petrie from University of Cambridge.
“Most contemporary civilisations initially utilised either winter crops, such as the Mesopotamian reliance on wheat and barley, or the summer crops of rice and millet in China – producing surplus with the aim of stockpiling,” said Petrie.
“However, the area inhabited by the Indus is at a meteorological crossroads, and we found evidence of year-long farming that predates its appearance in the other ancient river valley civilisations,” he said.
The study was published in the journals Antiquity and Journal of Archaeological Science.