In the previous post I wrote about this Vietnamese ultranationalist idea that there was an ancient divide in Asia between agriculturalists (= the ancestors of the Vietnamese) and pastoralists (= the ancestors of the Han Chinese).
For that idea to make sense, it’s necessary to show that agriculture emerged first somewhere to the south of the Chinese world, such as in Southeast Asia, and that it then spread northward.
This is the argument that Vietnamese ultranationalists make, and they do this by stating that rice was first cultivated in Southeast Asia.
Is there evidence that rice cultivation first began in Southeast Asia?
No, there isn’t. Instead, today the international scholarly community has come to an agreement that the earliest center of rice cultivation was in the mid and lower Yangzi region in what is today China, although there are some people who argue that the Ganges river valley in what is today India was the site of the earliest cultivation of rice.
Either way, Southeast Asia is not viewed by the international community of professional archaeologists as the earliest site for rice cultivation, and this includes professional Vietnamese archaeologists.
Nonetheless, there was a period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when some archaeologists “proposed” that Southeast Asia “might have been” the place where rice was first cultivated, but they did not have solid archaeological evidence to back up their proposals, and as a result, today these positions are no longer upheld as solid archaeological evidence has been found in other places.
The idea that Southeast Asia might be where agriculture in general, and rice cultivation in particular, first began was initially proposed in 1952 by American geographer Carl O. Sauer in his Agricultural Origins and Dispersals.
Sauer made this suggested based not on archaeological evidence, but on speculation. This is what he wrote:
“As the cradle of earliest Agriculture, I have proposed Southeastern Asia. It meets the requirements of high physical and organic diversity, of mild climate with reversed monsoons giving abundant rainy and dry periods, of many waters inviting to fishing, of location at the hub of the Old World for communication by water or by land. No other area is equally well situated or equally well furnished for the rise of a fishing-farming culture.” (24-5)
In other words, Sauer first came up with a conceptual model for the environmental setting where he believed agriculture should have emerged first, and then he looked for a place on the planet which fit that model and found. . . Southeast Asia!
Again, Sauer did not provide archaeological evidence to support his claims.
American archaeologist Wilhelm Solheim and his students, Chester Gorman and Donn Bayard, however, suspected that they did find such archaeological evidence in Thailand in the 1960s when they investigated three archaeological sites: Non Nok Tha and Ban Chiang in northeastern Thailand and Sprit Cave in northwestern Thailand.
At Non Nok Tha, potsherds (i.e., pieces of pottery) were found at a level dating to roughly 3,500 BC that had imprints of cereal grains (which Solheim believed was rice), and various plant remains were found at Spirit Cave (including eventually, rice).
Solheim sent these samples to Douglas Yen at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu to examine further. Yen also journeyed to Thailand to obtain more samples with Gorman.
In the meantime, Solheim published an article in Scientific American in 1972 entitled “An Earlier Agricultural Revolution,” in which he stated that “The agricultural revolution, which was thought to have first occurred some 10,000 years ago among the emerging Neolithic societies of the Middle East, seems to have been achieved independently thousands of miles away in Southeast Asia.
“This separate agricultural revolution involved plants and animals for the most part unknown in the Middle East, and it may have begun as much as 5,000 years earlier.” (34)
Solheim should have waited for Yen to complete his tests, because when Yen finally published the findings of his tests in 1977, they did not support Solheim’s claim, as Yen ultimately concluded that the rice samples from these sites represented wild rather than domesticated rice.
While the excitement of the possibility of “an earlier agricultural revolution” in Southeast Asia did still inspire some scholars, increasingly detailed, and earlier, archaeological evidence from China combined with the lack of clear evidence in Southeast Asia to lead the professional archaeological community to conclude that the mid and lower Yangzi River area is the site where rice was first cultivated (although, as I mentioned above, there are some scholars who argue that the Ganges River area was an earlier site for rice cultivation).
While that is what is believed by professional archaeologists, the idea that rice was first cultivated in Southeast Asia is widely believed at a popular level in Vietnam, and it is a central tenet of Vietnamese ultranationalism, as the supposed dichotomy between “agriculturalists” and “pastoralists” will only make sense if it can be demonstrated that the “agriculturalists” had rice first.
So what evidence is provided to support this idea? It’s the writings of Sauer, Solheim, Gorman, etc., writings that are no longer seen as accurate in the West, but which still get cited over and over in Vietnam.