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Transition from foraging to agriculture under microscopes

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In China, the earliest written record of alcohol appeared in oracle-bone inscriptions around 3000 years ago. Archaeological investigations, however, have pushed back the date of alcohol production several millennia. Around 9000-8000 years ago, the production of fermented beverages in specialized pottery vessels appeared as a significant component in the transition to agriculture. Since then, alcohol has been essential in ritual feasting, contributing to sociopolitical processes throughout prehistory and history. Our research has revolutionized the understanding of alcohol production and consumption in the prehistoric Yellow River valley.


China is one of the few centers in the world where plant domestication evolved independently, but its developmental trajectory is not sufficiently understood. This is partly because there is considerably less data on macrobotanical remains from the terminal Pleistocene and early Holocene documented in China than in other regions, such as the Near East. To resolve these problems we have employed use-wear, starch and phytolith analyses on stone tools (grinding stones and cutting tools) to recover evidence for plant use. We have conducted several projects to investigate the range of plants used by Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, as well as by early Neolithic farmers who cultivated millets in the Yellow and Liao river valleys and rice in the Yangzi River region.

Our data show a long history of broad-subsistence strategies, including exploitation of diverse plants, tracing to the Upper Paleolithic 28,000 years ago. This subsistence practice continued to the early Neolithic, despite the emergence of agriculture. We have recently expanded our research to the Yin Mountains in Inner Mongolia, where newly discovered Neolithic sites show a transition to early sedentism and millet cultivation more than 8000 years ago. 

Current Projects

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Current Projects

Early Neolithic

Yahui He

Ran Chen

Inner Mongolia 

Inner Mongolia Project

Landscape in the vicinity of the Simagou

Foodways in early Neolithic south-central Inner Mongolia. In collaborating with Inner Mongolian  Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and Ulanqab Museum

Shangshan Culture

Jiajing Wnag

Lower Yangtze River

Shangshan Project


Collaborating with Zhejiang Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, we
have been investigating the emergence of rice farming through interdisciplinary research
combining archaeological excavations with microfossil residue analysis, focusing on the
Shangshan culture.


Liu, L., Bestel, S., Shi, J., Song, Y., Chen, X., 2013. Paleolithic human exploitation of plant foods during the last glacial maximum in North China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, 5380-5385.


Liu, L., Duncan, N.A., Chen, X., Cui, J., 2019. Exploitation of Job's tears in Paleolithic and Neolithic China: Methodological problems and solutions. Quaternary International 529, 25-37.


Liu, L., Duncan, N.A., Chen, X., Ji, P., 2016. Plant-based subsistence strategies and development of complex societies in Neolithic Northeast China: Evidence from grinding stones. Journal of Archaeological science: Reports 7, 247-261.


Liu, L., Duncan, N.A., Chen, X., Liu, G., Zhao, H., 2015. Plant domestication, cultivation, and foraging by the first farmers in early Neolithic Northeast China: Evidence from microbotanical remains. The Holocene 25, 1965-1978.


Liu, L., Field, J., Fullagar, R., Bestel, S., Ma, X., Chen, X., 2010a. What did grinding stones grind? New light on Early Neolithic subsistence economy in the Middle Yellow River Valley, China. Antiquity 84, 816-833.


Liu, L., Field, J., Fullagar, R., Zhao, C., Chen, X., Yu, J., 2010b. A functional analysis of grinding stones from Donghulin, north China. Journal of Archaeological Science 37, 2630-2639.


Liu, L., Field, J., Weisskopf, A., Webb, J., Jiang, L., Wang, H., Chen, X., 2010c. The exploitation of acorn and rice in early Holocene Lower Yangzi River, China. Acta Anthropologica Sinica 29, 317-336.


Liu, L., Ge, W., Bestel, S., Jones, D., Shi, J., Song, Y., Chen, X., 2011. Plant exploitation of the last foragers at Shizitan in the Middle Yellow River Valley China: evidence from grinding stones. Journal of Archaeological Science 38, 3524-3532.


Liu, L., Kealhofer, L., Chen, X., Ji, P., 2014. A broad-spectrum subsistence economy in Neolithic Inner Mongolia, China: Evidence from grinding stones. The Holocene 24, 724-740.


Liu, L., Levin, M.J., Bonomo, M.F., Wang, J., Shi, J., Chen, X., Han, J., Song, Y., 2018. Harvesting and processing wild cereals in the Upper Palaeolithic Yellow River Valley, China. Antiquity 92, 603-619.


Wang, J., L, Jiang. Use-wear and residue analysis of Shangshan flake tools 上山遗址打制石器 微痕与残留物分析, Southern Heritage 南方文物 02:120-124 [in Chinese].

Dispersal of the Yangshao culture and the drinking ritual tradition in NW Sichuan highlands, China (Li Liu and Jiajing Wang, collaborating with Chengdu City Institute of Archaeology and Sichuan Provincial Institute of Archaeology)

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