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Q+A: Li Liu on the roots of Chinese agriculture

Li Liu, professor of archeology at Stanford University, has recently published a report summarizing her groundbreaking discovery that Chinese is agricultural practices are thousands of years older than previously assumed. (Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

Li Liu is a professor of Chinese archeology and the author of research on the origins of agriculture on the Asian continent, which has pushed back the beginnings of Chinese farming by 12,000 years. The Daily sat down with Liu to discuss this groundbreaking discovery, her unique path to American academia and the importance of millet in the early Asian diet.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): You were born and raised in China, as well as attended college there. Can you describe your academic trajectory to the United States?

Li Liu (LL): I went to undergraduate school in China, at a school called Northwestern University in Xi’an, [and] finished in 1982. I came to the States in 1983 to do my master’s in anthropology at Temple University, [and] I went to Harvard in 1987 to get my Ph.D., also in anthropology, where I focused on Chinese archaeology. So then I finished my Ph.D. in 1994, and went to La Trobe University in Melbourne , where I taught Chinese archaeology, general archaeology and a bunch of other things. I also conducted fieldwork in China beginning in 1997 until I left in 2010, when I came to Stanford.


TSD: What, specifically, brought you to Stanford from Australia?

LL: There was a new position established in Chinese archaeology from a private donation. The position was housed in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, so I applied, and then they offered me the job.


TSD: That worked out nicely! Within your field of Chinese archeology, what are your primary research interests?

LL: In Chinese archaeology, I [study] a wide range of topics. Mostly, I study the period from the late Paleolithic period to the Bronze Age. I cover more than 10,000 years. Topics [I cover] include animal domestication, plant domestication, settlement patterns, state formation, craft production, craft specialization — so all kinds of things.


TSD: Why is Chinese archeology important not just for the study of Chinese history, but also for global history at large?

LL: [First, I think] China is so big and has so many people and has such a long history, so what happened in China would be very important to understand and compare with other parts of the world — to see similar patterns and differences. Archaeology relies on comparative studies, especially between regions, and China is a very good example to compare other [regions] to.


TSD: How does your most recent research on ancient Chinese agriculture fit into your broader academic focus?

LL: The article in PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences] is really part of our larger project to understand the origins of agriculture not from the beginning of domestication — when people already began planting and harvesting crops — but the earliest stages of agriculture, when people began to explore the wild plants that later became domesticated. Many people have tried to understand when [the process of domestication] started and how long that took. Scholarship has been done more in the Near East, because that region has been studied archaeologically for a much longer time.

In China, research is really just beginning, particularly for the late Paleolithic period, which is rather remote — it’s difficult to recover remains. Also, the methodology of the Paleolithic is different from the Neolithic in China, so people have not really discussed early agriculture in [the] Paleolithic until recently, and the methods we employed and analysis we used is rather new, especially in China. We had access to some very early tools, and then we were able to use our scientific methods on those tools, so that’s a real advantage.

TSD: What sorts of artifacts did you unearth while you were excavating?

LL: We had already isolated artifacts before, [so instead], for this article, we analyzed grinding stones made of sandstone that first appeared in China about 25,000 years ago. This is in the late Paleolithic period — the beginning of modern human behavior — and it’s interesting to see what those earliest grinding stones were used for. People always assumed they were used for processing domesticated cereals, but we know those stones were from the Paleolithic period, long before cereal domestication, so we want to know exactly the function of those stones. That’s the beginning point of what would later become agriculture, and we can trace it to this time period.


TSD: Where there any crops that were particularly significant to early Chinese agriculture?

LL: Rice and millet [were very important] in Chinese agriculture.  Basically in northern China, [the most important crop] was millet, and in southern China it was rice. [While] rice is still very commonly consumed by people in the world, many people don’t know what millet is like, and if you have not consumed millet, you can probably go to the store and [think that you’re] buy[ing] bird food. Because millet’s productivity was rather low, it was gradually replaced by wheat and corn, which were introduced from outside to China. The earliest Chinese civilization developed in northern China, and those people who built the first dynasties and states relied on millet, so that’s why millet is very crucial to understand the economic bases of Chinese civilizations.


TSD: Now that you’ve published your recent findings, where will your research go from here?

LL: We’ve begun to [understand] the earliest stage of human activities that led to agriculture, and we want to know more about the later stages. There are three general phases of domestication of plants: First, people began to explore for wild plants, which were not explored before — they had a lot more to eat, like tubers and large wild animals, so they didn’t bother to collect plants that produce small seeds like wild millet. If they were short of food and not productive, then they began exploring plants with small seeds. This is the first stage, and we can now trace the first stage to 23,000 years ago during the ice age.

In the second stage — after people are familiar with nature of those plants — they began to experiment with cultivation. This pre-domestication cultivation is one of our research targets, since little is known about how it happened, especially in northern China.

The third stage is domestication. [In this stage] plants were already domesticated and were genetically different from their wild ancestors. We see that the plants look different from wild ones. This is the so-called Neolithic revolution, when the domestication of plants and animals started and people settled down and built villages. This is the stage we also want to look into and see what kind of plants were domesticated — we have a lot of questions. For example, there were a lot of tubers used by humans, such as Homo erectus [a likely predecessor of Homo sapiens], but it is difficult to tell when they become domesticated.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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