Food Globalization Dynamics in Prehistory and the Climate

Spotlight: Xinyi Liu | Department of Anthropology

Contributed by Guinter Dame Vogg on December 9, 2022.

The climate crisis that we face as a society has made us rethink actions in our day to day lives, including how we think about where our food comes from. In many campaigns that aim to reduce climate change, calls for individuals to shop for food locally have become a common practice. Climate activists frequently argue that we must stop greenhouse gas emissions in transportation, which are produced when food is transported long distances before it reaches the consumer. Climate change can be, therefore, closely related to the way food is distributed on a global scale, and how this globalization developed throughout the millennia – this brings us to an interesting connection between climate action and the field of Archaeology.

Liu

Dr. Xinyi Liu, an Associate Professor of Archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis, utilizes a range of stable isotope and archaeobotanical approaches to explore how past societies domesticated, produced and consumed plants and animals, and how they adapted to new environments in the context of the spread of farming. Liu’s recent research has focused on a period of food globalization in prehistory that brought domesticates from different parts of the world into a novel network sustaining ancient societies by about 3500 years ago. For this purpose, Dr. Liu has collaborated with archaeologists around the world, conducting many field expeditions in regions of East Asia, such as the Chinese Yellow River region and the Tibetan Plateau, as well as regions in Central Asia.

Field expedition on the Tibetan Plateau 2018
Barley in high-altitude environment

How does Climate Change enter this discussion? In his research, Dr. Liu recognizes the crucial influence that climate has on the way food was produced and globalized. In the early Holocene, with the end of the last Glacial Age around 11,500 years ago, there were major shifts in the ways that humans, animals, and plants interact due to the increase in global temperature and sea level rise, among other factors related to the changes in climate. These changes formed the landscape under which domestication took place in different parts of the world, and Liu comments that between 7,000 and 3,500 years ago, thousands of years after the last Ice Age, there was a period of food globalization characterized by the movement of domesticated crops, such as wheat and barley, the so-called Fertile Crescent Founder Crops from West to the East, and millet and rice moved in the opposite direction. This excites archaeologists like himself to further explore the nature of human food choice and the context in which agricultural innovation occurred under new environments. Liu mentions that there are still ongoing discussions among scholars about how climate change had a direct or indirect impact on the onset of agricultural origin, domestication, and its subsequent globalization, but notes that the Holocene climate and its variations over time were essential to the understanding of past societies.

Millet field near the domestication center

However, the Holocene environment and the dispersal of crops were not the only factors shaping global food choices in the past. Grains or animal products would need to be cooked in a way that makes sense to local cuisines. “At the global level, the regional culinary differences were likely the cultural legacies of the Pleistocene hunter-gathers”, said Liu, “and they were the conditions rather than consequences of plant/animal domestication and its globalization”. Dr. Liu’s research investigated when non-native innovations were adopted in another cultural and natural environment, how they could be transformed within the local context. This question resonates with the social-environmental challenge facing people today.

These social dimensions can explain many aspects of food globalization observed by archaeologists and the reasons why certain crops worked in a given geography and failed in others. As Dr. Liu mentions, “Food globalization in the past was about growing crops in the wrong environment and cooking innovatively”. In some ways, this trial-and-error practice is what brought us to the ultra-globalized model we have today; different from prehistoric times, our society adapted to a model where food from around the world can be found in your neighborhood grocery stores. But if societies are so different, past and present, how can we relate prehistoric food globalization with contemporary climate change? Dr. Liu has found a correlation:

“I have spent more time thinking about the past than the future, but it is not difficult to see the parallels. Some of the challenges facing societies today resonate with what we have observed in archaeological records, and there are lessons to learn from the Bronze Age and even older times. It is important to share knowledge with others in order to address challenges with a scope beyond national boundaries. Sharing needs to happen at the local level and be contextualized within a given system in a culturally sensitive way. Just as in the Bronze Age, people brought new grains and animals across geographical boundaries – mountains, rivers, or other difficult terrains – to deal with risks in climate change or food security, so we need today to work together across political boundaries to address questions beyond the time scale that could be perceived by individuals immersed in it.”

Dr. Xinyi Liu

Dr. Liu says that the solution must be a bottom-up process, with communities at the center. Afterall, even though we are all experiencing climate change, each one of us perceives it and is affected by it differently. Past climate trends shaped us as a species and as societies to constantly respond to changing natural and cultural environments. In prehistory, climate change propelled societies to spread their crops and agricultural knowledge throughout continents, expanding globally. Today, however, contemporary climate change seems to be driving us to practices that aim to maintain our food production locally. We must adapt to work in parallel with our climate reality and take the necessary measures to continue to thrive as a species.

Liu’s lab: https://sites.wustl.edu/earlyfoodwebs/
Department website: https://anthropology.wustl.edu/people/xinyi-liu

A couple of news stories may be related:
https://source.wustl.edu/2022/11/thirsty-wheat-needed-new-water-management-strategy-in-ancient-china/
https://source.wustl.edu/2021/08/til-the-cows-come-home/

Relevant publications: 

Liu, X., P.J. Jones, G. Motuzaite Matuzeviviute, H.V. Hunt, D.L. Lister, T. An, N. Przelomska, C.J. Kneale, Z. Zhao and M.K. Jones, 2019. From ecological opportunism to multi-cropping: mapping food globalisation in prehistory. Quaternary Science Reviews, 206(15), 21-8.

Vaiglova, P.*, R. E. B. Reid, E. Lightfoot, S. E. Pilaar Birch, H. Wang, G. Chen, S. Li, M. K. Jones and X. Liu*, 2021. Localized management of non-indigenous animal domesticates in northwestern China during the Bronze Age. Scientific Reports, 11: 15764.

Ritchey, M. M.*, Y. Sun, G. Motuzaite Matuzeviciute, S. Shaoda, A. K. Pokharia, M. Spate, L. Tang, J. Song, H. Li, G. Dong, P. Vaiglova, M. Frachetti and X. Liu*, 2022. The Wind that Shakes the Barley: the role of eastern Eurasian cuisines and environments on barley grain size. World Archaeology, 53(1): 1-18.

Li, H., Y. Sun, Y. Yang, Y. Cui, L. Ren, H. Li, G. Chen, P. Vaiglova, G. Dong* and X. Liu*, 2022. Distinct water and soil management by first wheat and barley cultivators in north China. Antiquity, first available online: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2022.138