The prehistoric roots of Chinese cuisines: Mapping staple food systems of China, 6000 BC–220 AD

WashU affiliated authors: Xinyi Liu (Dept. of Anthropology)

Abstract: We conducted a meta-analysis of published carbon and nitrogen isotope data from archaeological human skeletal remains (n = 2448) from 128 sites cross China in order to investigate broad spatial and temporal patterns in the formation of staple cuisines. Between 6000–5000 cal BC we found evidence for an already distinct north versus south divide in the use of main crop staples (namely millet vs. a broad spectrum of C3 plant based diet including rice) that became more pronounced between 5000–2000 cal BC. We infer that this pattern can be understood as a difference in the spectrum of subsistence activities employed in the Loess Plateau and the Yangtze-Huai regions, which can be partly explained by differences in environmental conditions. We argue that regional differentiation in dietary tradition are not driven by differences in the conventional “stages” of shifting modes of subsistence (hunting-foraging-pastoralism-farming), but rather by myriad subsistence choices that combined and discarded modes in a number of innovative ways over thousands of years. The introduction of wheat and barley from southwestern Asia after 2000 cal BC resulted in the development of an additional east to west gradient in the degree of incorporation of the different staple products into human diets. Wheat and barley were rapidly adopted as staple foods in the Continental Interior contra the very gradual pace of adoption of these western crops in the Loess Plateau. While environmental and social factors likely contributed to their slow adoption, we explored local cooking practice as a third explanation; wheat and barley may have been more readily folded into grinding-and-baking cooking traditions than into steaming-and-boiling traditions. Changes in these culinary practices may have begun in the female sector of society.

Citation: Liu X, Reid REB (2020) The prehistoric roots of Chinese cuisines: Mapping staple food systems of China, 6000 BC–220 AD. PLoS ONE 15(11): e0240930.