Sponsored By: Infinity Foundation

The Origins of Pottery and Agriculture

Review: The Origins of Pottery and Agriculture. Yoshinori Yasuda (Ed.). 2002. New Delhi: Roli Books Pvt. Ltd. Pp. 400. Price not given.
by D.P. Agrawal and Lalit Tiwari

Posted 6/10/03

This book is about the origins of agriculture, animal husbandry and ceramic technology. This is in many ways a revolutionary book as it forces one to a paradigm shift regarding the origins of agriculture and pottery. To appreciate the import of the book, it may be useful to introduce some basic concepts.

Beginnings of agriculture and husbanding animals involved their domestication, which itself is a bit of a polemical issue. Some time back Lamberg-Karlovsky, the well known Harvard archaeologist, had explained these issues. His observations are relevant even today.

“The definition of food production is in part dependent upon the ambiguous concept of domestication itself. Domestication is best seen as a continuum of relationships among human beings, plants, and animals. It is often difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish morphologically domesticated from wild plants. For some plants the essential factor in domestication is a shift in adaptation to new habitats that are modified or destroyed by people; the emphasis is on ecological rather than morphological change. Some domesticated plants like maize, dates, bananas, breadfruit are forever tied to people, having lost their independent power of seed dispersal and germination; others, even if controlled or manipulated by humans, revert to the original wild state if not constantly tended…If it is difficult to determine the extent of domestication in past cultural systems on morphological or ecological bases, it follows that the agricultural status of a community is often ambiguous. There are degrees of food production, and the assignment must be an arbitrary one. Anthropologists and archaeologists can, however, agree on a working definition of domestication that posits, at a minimum, (1) a reasonably efficient level of food production entailing situations in which food acquired through direct production amounts to over half of the community’s dietary needs for part of the year; and (2) both plant and animal domesticates are no longer bound to their natural habitat” (Lamberg-Karlovsky 1979: 85-89).

The advent of agriculture was no ordinary event in human evolution. Agriculture allowed us to sustain very large populations. About 100Kyr ago the population was only about 10,000 and now very soon we will be crossing the 10 billion mark – a million-fold increase in just a few millennia! Though we generally regard hunting-gathering as a primitive stage and attribute civilisation to agricultural surplus, agriculture brought several problems with it. The easily digestible food of Homo sapiens gradually led to shrinking of the jaw. Our jaw now can accommodate only 28 teeth. The wisdom teeth create a variety of problems when they erupt. About 15% Europeans and 30% East Asians do not grow more than 30 teeth. During the last 10Kyr H. sapiens is shrinking. From Cro-Magnon man’s 6′ height, it has come down to 5’8” today. Even our brains are shrinking. Molleson (1994), who studied skeletons from Abu Hureyra (Syria) dating back to 11.5 -7.5 Kyr, found that daily grinding of grain for several hours resulted in damaged discs and crushed vertebrae. Maize cultivation, which started 8000 years back by the American Indians, resulted in several fold increase in tooth cavities, anaemia, TB, yaws, arthritis and syphilis. Almost 1/5th population died in infancy. Dense populations led to a variety of epidemics. Agriculture and ceramic technology had a dramatic effect as porridge could now substitute the breast milk. Regular breast-feeding suppresses ovulation and weaning of infants from breast milk led to more frequent pregnancies and an increase in population.

One has then to ask: If agriculture brought such disasters then why did humans opt for it? The answer is simple. Farming allowed a larger number of people to sustain themselves over a piece of land than would hunting-gathering. However, hunting-gathering life-style had its own advantages. The physical exertion of hunting kept us in good health (Stringer & McKie 1996). Possehl has made some interesting remarks in praise of hunting gathering life-style: The intensified “foraging ” strategies of antiquity may have provided a very good, balanced, reliable food supply with relatively low labour inputs. All of which seems to suggest that the life of hunter-gatherer might have been quite good: ample leisure time, a balanced diet, and a reliable food supply.

With this backdrop, we will now discuss in some detail the formidable multidisciplinary evidence that the book marshals.

A few words about the editor. Yoshinori Yasuda, is a Professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (IRCJS/(Nichbunken) in Kyoto since 1994. In 1980 Yasuda established the first unit of environmental archaeology in Japan and has been a pioneer in this field and has worked In West Asia, Mongolia, Rajasthan (India), China and of course at several sites in Japan. He thus is perhaps the best suited scholar to undertake this global survey. The articles present an integrated picture of palaeoclimatic changes, technology, agriculture, animal husbandry, and of course the human society.

The book gives due importance to high-resolution paleoenvironmental evidence. “The studies of the high-resolution palaeoclimatic reconstruction were carried out on the glacial annual varve and lacustrine annual varves. Especially in recent decades, the studies of high-resolution lake sediment have, been conducted by the European Lake Drilling Program (ELDP) and the Asian Lake Drilling Programme (ALDP). By these studies of high-resolution analyses for the palaeoenvironment, we have been able to establish a new chronology based on calendar years and to get more detailed evidence of palaeoclimate and environment in the Glacial/Post-glacial transition. These have opened a new field to solve the origins of pottery and agriculture, which will be discussed in this book, and the age based on conventional 14C dates and calibrated calendar years distinguished. The conventional 14C dates are noted as 14C yrs. BP or yrs. BP, calibrated calendar years as cal. yrs. BP or BC and varve chronology as varve yrs. BP in this book.”

In the Introduction, Yasuda emphatically claims, “This book makes it clear that the origins of pottery and agriculture in the East precede their origins in the West. The conventional view that the East has been behind the West until now will be completely reversed in this book at least in terms of the origins of pottery and agriculture. The difference of the origins and tradition in the East and the West also brought significant influence to the development of subsequent Eastern and Western civilizations. It should lead also to rediscovery of value of Eastern civilization in the history of human civilization, which has been overlooked for a long time. Being based on a pluralistic view and carrying out comparative studies of the East and the West, this book takes to the construction of the new history of human civilization.”

Agriculture is one of the most climate-sensitive economic activities of mankind. The present book discusses the origins of pottery, as well as of wheat and rice cultivation. It incorporates the results of the most recent research carried out in eastern and western worlds, in relation to the man-land relationship, and brings out the basic differences between the East and the West.

This edited volume has five different sections, which contain a total of 24 articles by well-known scholars in different fields. The first section deals with the origins of agriculture in West Asia and contains 6 chapters. Second section is “Origins of Pottery and Agriculture in East Asia” which has nine articles. Third section “Origin of Pottery and Rice Cultivation in Japan” contains six articles contributed by various authors. Fourth section has only three articles. Section five contains the conclusions drawn by Yasuda, the editor. It’s a multidisciplinary book synthesizing palaeoclimatic, genetic, archaeological archaeobotanic data. In recent years no such book has been attempted with such a holistic integration of multiple evidence covering almost the whole world, though with an emphasis on East Asia. It is a richly illustrated with a large number of plots and graphs. In its get up, it looks like a coffee table book.

First Section

Yasuda contributes the first article (after the Introduction) of this book on the topic of origin of agriculture in West Asia. According to Yasuda, the people of West Asia were the pioneers who began farming wheat and initiated the Neolithic Revolution in several parts of Asia and Europe. He further emphasizes that wheat agriculture first appeared in the basins of major river valleys in the semi arid regions of the Euphrates, the Tigris, the Nile, the Indus, and subsequently spread gradually to Europe, where this crop was responsible for the development of Western civilization.

At the end of the Last-glacial period there was a characteristic cold and dry climatic phase called the ‘Younger Dryas’. Ofer Bar-Yosef, the well known prehistorian specializing on West Asia, in the next article, discusses the role of the Younger Dryas in the origins of agriculture in southwestern Asia, specifically in the Levant. The role of the Younger Dryas in the origin of agriculture was first recognised by Bar-Yosef and Belfer-Cohen.

The third article of this section is “Holocene Environmental Change and the Transition to Agriculture in South-west Asia and North-east Asia” by Fekri A. Hassan, an Egyptian archaeologist now working at Institute of Archaeology, London. In this paper, Fekri focuses light on the emergence of food production in Southwest Asia and the neighboring areas in northeast Africa. He deals here with the outlines of a model that attempts to explain the beginning of agriculture in southwest Asia and the subsequent spread of plant and animal domestication into the Nile valley. He also briefly discusses the origins of plant and animal domestication in the Nile valley, suggesting that wheat and barley were favored at the expense of sorghum in Egypt.

Next article is “Late Glacial and Holocene Palaeoenvironmental Changes and the Origin of Agriculture in Central Europe” by Bernd Zolitschka and Jorg F.W. Negendank, who have specialized in high-resolution palaeoclimatic research.

The fifth article is “The Earliest Agriculture and Pottery in South Asia” by D. P. Agrawal. In this paper Agrawal presents a review of the urbanization processes in the light of palaeoclimatic data in the Indian subcontinent. According to the writer the Indian subcontinent has all the ingredients that go into the making of a civilization in terms of the early Holocene occurrences of domesticated plants and animals, as also early ceramic technology. According to him, early agriculture in the Ganga valley goes back to 7000-8000 years BP. He describes here the multiple data related to early agricultural processes.

Vasant Shinde, an archaeologist from Pune (India), contributes the last article of this section. He deals with the development and spread of agricultural communities in South Asia. He tries to establish the chronology of development of the early agricultural communities in South Asia between 9000-3000 years BP and delineates how the fertile regions of the Indus and Saraswati basins gave birth to the first farming communities of India. Shinde illustrates his essay with relevant archeological photographs.

Second Section

Second section of this book is devoted to the origins of pottery and agriculture in East Asia. This is the most important part of the book as it presents for the first time an integrated review of the origins of pottery making and rice cultivation in East Asian regions. In his article Yasuda presents radiocarbon dates on the early pottery and rice farming sites of East Asia, like the Chinese sites of Liuzhou Dalongtan Liyuzusi, Miyaoyan, Yuchanyan , Bashidang, Pentoushan; Russian sites of Khummi, Gasya; and the Japanese sites of Fukuidokutsu, Kamikuroiwa Iwakage, etc.

There are many controversies with regard to the origin of Asian cultivated rice in terms of its ancestors and phylogenetic relationship. Molecular genetic analysis suggests multiple parentages of the two major varietal groups of cultivars, indica and japonica. And a recent archeological study in China suggested that incipient japonica cultivation was initiated in the middle and lower basins of the Yangtze River.

In the next article of this section, Yo-Ichiro Sato emphasizes the new hypothesis on the geographic origin and phylogeny of cultivated rice. And he concludes that the japonica variety, a type of rufipogon, was probably born in the middle and lower basin of the Yangtze River about 10,000 years ago.

The next article is “The Origin of Rice Agriculture, Pottery and Cities” by Yan Wenming. Wenming has three main headings and each of the heading covers a separate topic.

Yuchanyan, popularly known as the frog cave in Chinese, is located in Shouyan town, Dao Country, Hunan Province. Dao Country sits in a basin surrounded by high mountains like Nanliang, with limestone hills nearby. Yuan Jiarong describes the origin of rice and pottery in Yuchanyan, Dao Country, Hunan Province in his article. He concludes that the cultural deposits found in the Yuchanyan cave are typical for south China during the early Holocene and characteristics of the transition period from the Upper Palaeolithic to the early Neolithic. The AMS and conventional rediocarbon analysis of three different materials at Yuchanyan cave shows that pottery production began in the Upper Paleeolithic in China.

The next two articles of this book are “Rice Paddy Agriculture and Pottery from the Middle reaches of the Yangtze River” and “Early Pottery and Rice Phytolith Remains from Xianrendong and Diaotonghuan Sits, Wannian, Jiangxi Province” by Pei Anpind and Zhang Chi, respectively. These two articles are very detailed and very informative.

Guo Ruihai and Li Jun present the next paper describing the beginnings of agriculture and pottery in North China with the special reference to the Nanzhuangtou and Hutouliang sites. The Nanzhuangtou site is located at the western edge of the North China plain, 15 km east of the Taihang Mountains and 35 km west of lake Baiyangdian. And the Hutouliang sites are located in the Nihewan basin of northwestern Hebei Province. These two archaeological sites are the most important sites of China. They try to find out the origin of the agriculture and pottery making in North China with the help of these two sites.

The next two articles are “The Bi-Peak-Tubercle of Rice, the Character of Ancient Rice and the Origin of Cultivated Rice” by Zang Wenxu and “New Perspectives on the Transition to Agriculture in China” by David Joel Cohen.

Third Section

It contains articles by well known writers and is devoted to the origin of pottery and rice cultivation in Japan. First article of this section is “The Meaning of agriculture for Humans” by Masaki Nishida. This is a very interesting paper. The author puts up a few issues in his article:

(1) Why were starchy seeds, the most common and important food for humans today, not efficiently utilized as a food resource until around ten thousand years ago?
(2) What is the causal relationship between the beginning of the use of starchy seeds and the emergence of sedentary communities?
(3) What is the relationship between the sedentary way of life and the domestication of plants?
(4) What is the relationship between the domestication of grass, and agriculture, and the emergence of cities and states?

The next article investigates the origins of pottery and human adaptation strategies during the termination of the last-glacial period in the Japanese archipelago by Takashi Tsutsumi. Three points are discussed in this article by the author: (1) a brief outline of environmental changes during the termination of the Last-glacial period and archaeological chronology; (2) Origin and types of pottery in each period, and respective functions; and (3) Changes in the ecosystem and subsistence strategies such as hunting, gathering and fishing, as well as changes in strategies for adaptations to cold and warm, establishment of settlements and procurement of natural recourse.

Shuichi Toyama in the next paper examines the origins and expansion of rice cultivation based on the environmental-archaeological survey throughout China and Japan, and also discusses the origins and development of the rice cultivation in Japan.

The next article is “The Origin and Development of Rice Paddy Cultivation in Japan Based on Evidence form Insect and Diatom Fossils” by Yuichi Mori. In this article, the author describes diatom and insect fossils found at several sites of historical remains, and discusses how rice paddy cultivation affected the biotic community in Japan.

The next article titled “Commentary on the Productive Capacity of Early Japanese Rice Farming” is by Kaoru Terasawa. And at the last of this section, Yoshiyuki Kuraku discusses the origin and development of rice cultivation in Japan.

Fourth Section

It is given to “Global Environmental and Food Problem in the 21st Century” and contains only three articles. First article of this section is “Global Climate Change and Food Problem” by Tsuneyuki Morita and Yuzuru Matsuoka. In this paper authors describe the Asia-Pacific Integrated Simulation Model (AIM).

Hiroshi Tsujii, in his article named “The Special Characteristics of the International Rice Market and their implications for rice Self-sufficiency Policy in the 21st Century” describe the rice policies of Asian countries and put up the question that how can we be able to provide an abundant and sustainable supply of cereals in the 21st Century? Last article of this book is “Rice Planting and the Global Environment Crisis: The Message from Japanese Rice Planting Folk Customs” by Kanichi Nomoto.

Fifth Section

At the end of the book, Yoshinori Yasuda presents the final conclusion, entitled “Shift from Monistic to Pluralistic View of Civilization”.

Thus we see that this valuable monograph presents the latest multi-disciplinary evidence from across the globe on the beginnings of ceramics and agriculture. The editor asks for a paradigm shift in our thinking regarding the origins of these technologies and marshals a formidable array of data to prove that the East (China and Japan) preceded West Asia in the origins of these technologies.

The book doesn’t only deal with the bygone past. It has a relevance to the future too. Yasuda says, “After the agricultural revolution, Homo sapiens ruled over nature, killed other animals, destroyed the forest, polluted air and water and created a kingdom suitable only for Homo sapiens on the earth. His desire for endless expansion caused many environmental problems on this living earth. Today’s environmental crisis on the earth, which is shaking the very foundation of life, was predicted when Homo sapiens succeeded in the agricultural revolution.” This reminds us the famous saying of Gandhi, that the nature has enough for everybody’s needs but not for their greed.

We strongly recommend the book for those interested not only in the fields of world archeology, origins of agriculture and ceramics, but also in the future of humankind.


Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C.1979. Hunters, farmers and civilizations: Old Word archaeology; Neolithic Villagers and farmers. Scientific American. Pp.85-89.
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Molleson, T.1994. The eloquent bones of Abu Hureyra. Scientific American. August: 60-65.

Stringer, Chris and Robin McKie. 1996. African Exodus. London: Jonathan Ca.