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The Spread of Food Production, and the Austronesian Expansion

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Within the Asia-Pacific region, the inceptions of food production occurred independently in the New Guinea Highlands and central China (the Yangzi and Yellow river basins). In both regions, some populations were reasonably dependent on food production by 4000 BC. China witnessed the development of cereal (rice, foxtail, and common millet), legume (soybean), and pig production.

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Plant and animal domestication is the most important development in the past 13,000 years of human history. It interests all of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, because it provides most of our food today, it was prerequisite to the rise of civilization, and it transformed global demography. Because domestication ultimately yielded agents of conquest (for example, guns, germs and steel) but arose in only a few areas of the world, and in certain of those areas earlier than in others, the peoples who through biogeographic luck first acquired domesticates acquired enormous advantages over other peoples and expanded

As a result of those replacements, about 88% of all humans alive today speak some language belonging to one or another of a mere seven language families confined in the early Holocene to two small areas of Eurasia that happened to become the earliest centres of domestication — the Fertile Crescent and parts of China. Through that head start, the inhabitants of those two areas spread their languages and genes over much of the rest of the world. Those localized origins of domestication ultimately explain why this international journal of science is published in an Indo-European language rather than in Basque, Swahili, Quechua or Pitjantjatjara.

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The settlement of the Remote Pacific has been associated and identified archaeologically with the Lapita Cultural Complex (Kirch PV (2000))

The Lapita culture first appears in the Bismarck Archipelago some 3400 years before present (BP) and rapidly spreads into the previously uninhabited islands of Remote Oceania, reaching Tonga and Samoa, on the edge of the Polynesian Triangle by about 2900 BP. Migration to and settlement of the rest of the Polynesian Triangle did not begin until some 1,700 years after the colonization of Samoa and Tonga, with settlement of Aotearoa/New Zealand around 730 BP, marking the end of Austronesian expansion into the Pacific. Although Taiwan has been identified as the homeland of the Austronesian languages, all previous commensal animal studies indicate origins and migration pathways that do not include Taiwan, suggesting a complex history for the various components of Austronesian and Lapita cultures. Most of the economically important plant species introduced to Remote Oceanic islands during prehistory, such as banana, taro, breadfruit, and sugarcane, have Near Oceanic origins, whereas the sweet potato and the bottle gourd are of South American origin.

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In brief, just as modern DNA samples fail to capture some of the lost diversity, both cultivated and wild, of rice, linguistic reconstruction can only provide part of the picture. However, by triangulating between archaeological data points, modern genetic inferences and historical linguistics, we should be better placed to recapture and reconstruct patterns of evolutionary process and history that brought us to where we are today

There can be no doubt that the civilizations of Asia have histories in which rice has been a key component, both as staple foodstuff and as salient cultural symbol.

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Kirch PV (2000) On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact (Univ of California Press, Berkeley, CA).

Matisoo-Smith E, et al. (1998) Patterns of prehistoric human mobility in Polynesia indicated by mtDNA from the Pacific rat. Proc Natl Acad

Matisoo-Smith E, Robins JH (2004) Origins and dispersals of Pacific peoples: Evidence from mtDNA phylogenies of the Pacific rat.

Storey AA, et al. (2007) Radiocarbon and DNA evidence for a pre-Columbian introduction of Polynesian chickens to Chile. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104(25):

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