Next Article in Journal
Multi-Taxa Neo-Taphonomic Analysis of Bone Remains from Barn Owl Pellets and Cross-Validation of Observations: A Case Study from Dominica (Lesser Antilles)
Next Article in Special Issue
New Discoveries and Theoretical Implications for the Last Foraging and First Farming in East Asia
Previous Article in Journal
Taxonomy, Systematics and Evolution of Giant Deer Megaloceros Giganteus (Blumenbach, 1799) (Cervidae, Mammalia) from the Pleistocene of Eurasia
Previous Article in Special Issue
Ethnoarchaeology of Introducing Agriculture and Social Continuity among Sedentarised Hunter–Gatherers: The Transition from the Jomon to the Yayoi Period
Order Article Reprints
Font Type:
Arial Georgia Verdana
Font Size:
Aa Aa Aa
Line Spacing:
Column Width:

Introduction: New Discoveries and Theoretical Implications for the Last Foraging and First Farming in East Asia

Department of Anthropology, Boise State University, Boise, ID 83725, USA
Department of Modern Society and Civilization, National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka 565-8511, Japan
Department of Cultural Heritage and Museology, Fudan University, Shanghai 200433, China
Institute of Archaeological Science, Fudan University, Shanghai 200433, China
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Quaternary 2021, 4(4), 37;
Received: 15 June 2020 / Revised: 24 July 2020 / Accepted: 5 August 2020 / Published: 18 November 2021
Worldwide, scientific understanding about domestication and the origins of food production is undergoing rapid change based on new data from discoveries in paleoclimates and environments, paleobiology, and archaeology. Two major periods of transition include the Pleistocene to Holocene of about 12,000–9000 BP, and another in the Middle Holocene (7000–4000 BP) [1]. The larger narrative of the transition from foraging to farming has been mainly built based on the archaeological record from Near East and Mesoamerica; in contrast, East Asia has been less integrated in worldwide archaeological research, in part because of language boundaries. Obviously, this region, well-known for cultivation of millet, rice, and other cultigens, cannot be ignored in order to do empirical generalization and theory building for this anthropologically oriented research question. In this Special Issue of Quaternary we focus on East Asia because of the broad array of habitats and deep time horizons that enable explorations of variability in agricultural origins and adoptions. The regions we now call northern and southern China, Inner Mongolia, Japan, and the Taiwan island have seen steady growth in the number of archaeological and other scientific investigations that are germane to the foraging to agriculture transition in both key periods, due to the rapid pace of salvage archaeology resulting from development projects and the strength of academic and museum programs that foster archaeological research [2,3,4,5,6]. Additionally and importantly, critical and productive re-examination of important legacy research documents, samples, and collections is facilitating the growth of new ways to investigate legacy data from prior explorations [3,4,7,8,9]. The multi-lingual publication rate is growing, as evidenced by the birth of new English language journals devoted exclusively to Asian archaeology and special issues (like this one) in multi-disciplinary publications, and the availability of open-source access is accelerating the growth of international readership, comparative approaches, and collaborations [3,9,10,11].
In the field of East Asian archaeology, methodological advances in chronometric analysis have fueled an increase in the sample of securely dated contexts and clarified the timing of change as well as allowed for critical comparison of regional sequences. Detailed evidence for paleoclimatic deteriorations and ameliorations allow us to posit testable correlations between climatic fluctuations and adaptive responses in subsistence, settlement, and social organization. Environmental analysis brings habitat and niche into focus, so that overlaps and differences can be identified in landscapes preferred by foragers and farmers. Detailed analysis of biomorphology, isotopic signatures, and genetic information can reveal domestication thresholds for a wide variety of crop species. Examining technological systems from the standpoint of social organization, such as implications of microblade-based societies, can sharpen distinctions between groups that at first glance appear to be homogeneous, or find commonalities between apparently different systems. Use wear and residue analysis are contributing to better knowledge about subsistence of the transition, and actualistic and experimental methods are important middle range approaches to open up new lines of hypothesis development regarding testable expectations for the contexts and evolutionary pathways of subsistence and technology. Finally, reference information from global and local ethnographies of foragers and farmer-gardeners, and from the sister discipline of human behavioral ecology, are providing rich insights into testable factors that influence decision-making in the rapidly changing adaptive theater of the Pleistocene to Holocene transition, and play an increasingly important role in our understanding of the origins of East Asian food production.
The origin and spread of agriculture in East Asia during the transitional period occurred within a varied theater of habitats and foraging adaptations. The mountain chains, plateaus, hilly flanks, and river-crossed plains of China offer a fascinating “laboratory” that includes centers of domestication as well as a variable pace and process of agricultural adoptions by foraging neighbors. In the north, the vast distances and high connectivity appear to facilitate the development of mobile socio-technological systems such as microblade-based societies that were maintained and evolved through frequent aggregations [12] and a supple adaptive capacity for climatic shifts [13] that offered both ‘push and pull’ for experimentation with cultivation. In the Middle Yangtze River valley and other complex riverine habitats, hunter-gatherers mapped onto abundant resource patches and in some cases semi-sedentized societally complex foraging remained a viable lifeway compared to rice agriculture [14]. The roles of women in procuring abundant wild aquatic resources through the use of standardized technological systems have been under-studied and are worthy of further investigation.
Moving offshore, the abundant littoral, estuarine, and oceanic resources of neighboring islets offered Paleolithic hunting and gathering societies a means of broadening the subsistence niche with aquatic resources, with later specialization through development of technology like boats, lines, and net systems to acquire pelagic foods of the deep ocean [15]. In the case of Taiwan, the arrival of Neolithic farmer-fishers from SE China with their millet and rice initially added competitive pressure for land and resources and narrowed foraging options; but ultimately this phenomenon also provided a means for some hunter-gatherers to broaden their niche by adding low-effort and mobility friendly cultigens to aquatic and hunted foods.
By comparison, in the Japanese archipelago the characteristics of many habitats fostered the continued adaptive value and maintenance of hunting and gathering in some areas. This is in contrast to the basins of Yangtze River and Yellow River, which were centers of agriculture. In this respect, it is also necessary to conduct comparisons with surrounding areas including northeastern and southern parts of China. Of the various cultivated plants of the Japanese archipelago, including soybeans, foxtail millet (Setaria italica, awa in Japanese), pearl millet (Echinochloa esculenta, hie in Japanese), and rice, the latter is the most important crop that contributed to the naissance of farming. Because of the prevailing culture of indigenous hunter-gatherers and fishermen in the Japanese archipelago, even if cultivated plants other than rice had been introduced the shift of peoples’ livelihoods to agriculture would have been complex. Paddy rice cultivation became established in northern Kyushu by immigrants from the Korean Peninsula [16].
Two questions relate to the shifting of subsistence in the Japanese Archipelago: first, why did the culture of hunter-gatherers persist? The transition period from the Pleistocene to the Holocene at ca. 11,500 BP occurred at the early phase of the Jomon period (16,000–3000 BP, about 13,000 years total) in Japan. Jomon hunter-gatherers lived on various islands from Hokkaido to the main island of Okinawa over a range of 3000 km north and south. Recent studies have elucidated that azuki beans, soybeans, millet, and others were cultivated in some parts of the country during the middle Jomon period [17], but cultivation was just one of many activities of subsistence, along with hunting, gathering, and fishing. In fact, cultivated plants would have been less important than gathering forest nuts (walnuts, acorns, conker, chestnuts, beech, etc.). During the transitional period from the Pleistocene to the Holocene, it is possible that modes of hunting, gathering, and fishing were influenced by a warming climate, but the introduction of agriculture and its social effects have yet to be recognized. This may have been the case because the diverse natural resources of forests, rivers and sea in the Japanese archipelago were abundant, secure, and stable. In fact, it has been revealed that human cultures changed from the late Pleistocene to the early Holocene in Hokkaido [18]. In the eastern part of Hokkaido the discovery of many early Holocene pit dwellings are evidence that the number of settlements was increasing, suggestive of higher population densities, or growing sedentism, or both.
The second question concerns the adoption of agriculture (rice farming) in the Japanese Archipelago? Why was it not adopted in some cases, and what are the salient differences? Much later than in the rest of East Asia, in the tenth century BCE immigrants from the Korean Peninsula introduced rice cultivation to northern Kyushu. Thus the first farming cultures of the Japanese Archipelago were born, and varied relationships developed between farmers and hunter-gatherers. It is estimated that their relationships endured for different periods in the Fukuoka Plain, Osaka Plain, Kanto Plain, and Tohoku Region [19,20]. If examined at the level of individual archeological sites on Fukuoka Plain [20], clearly their relationship changed over time. For example, hunter-gatherers still lived in Hokkaido and Okinawa during the late period [21]. About 500 years elapsed between the introduction of rice farming in Kyushu and its spread to the Tohoku region of Japan. Moreover, rice farming was then limited to Kyushu, Honshu, and Shikoku, which indicates not only limitations to conduct rice cultivation in cold regions, but also the reluctance of indigenous hunter-gatherers—who were well-adapted to abundant natural resources—to convert to the farming lifestyle.
Taken individually, the new methods and discoveries in these case studies are provocative. Approaches of macroecology, human behavioral ecology, ethnoarchaeology, experimental archaeology, and others are applied to provide explanatory and referential frameworks on the foraging to farming transitions in East Asia. Results indicate very early experimentation in food production; growing evidence for the persistence of foraging; new perspectives on the roles of aggregations and gendered food procurement; and the surprisingly intertwined relationship between wild aquatic foods, niche, migration, and the agricultural experiment. Taken as a whole, the emerging picture of Paleolithic to Neolithic transitions in East Asia is revolutionary, overturning prior assumptions about both hunter-gatherers and farmers and revealing new aspects of the tempo and mode of the change. From forests, plateaus, grassy plains, and mountains to coasts, islands, and archipelagos, we are now positioned to take an unprecedented opportunity to understand and predict variability in the tempo and mode of the Paleolithic to Neolithic transition across one of the biggest landmasses on the planet. Clearly, the Russian Far East, Mongolia, Korea, Sakhalin, and Island Southeast Asia are important transitional regions experiencing rapid research growth, and these regions merit robust attention in their own right.
This Special Issue of Quaternary, “Advances in East Asian Agricultural Origins Studies: The Pleistocene to Holocene Transition”, aims to present advances in research from established and upcoming researchers working in mainland China, Taiwan Island, and the Japanese Archipelago, with the purpose of evaluating the significance of Paleolithic cultural influences on the transition to Neolithic adaptations by comparing cultural evolutionary scenarios through time and across space. The array of approaches is multidisciplinary, including new archaeological excavation data, revisiting legacy data, fresh perspectives on paleoclimate and environments, and reference information from hunting and gathering peoples and small scale farmers. Quantitative, qualitative, and integrated data and methodologies are featured. A critical synthetic review chapter provides a global perspective on this rapidly growing field including theoretical and methodological considerations for the case studies.
The co-editors hope that growing our understanding of the East Asian transition from foraging to Neolithic agriculture—a hallmark of the Quaternary and among the most dramatic and influential processes in the history of modern humans—will help to deepen our understanding of variability of human adaption and decision-making against the backdrop of dramatic and unpredictable climate change that marks the transition from terminal Pleistocene to incipient Holocene. We also hope these articles help to inform the general trajectory of scientific inquiry into the foundational characteristics of Late Quaternary growth and migrations of human populations, societal complexity, subsistence and economic transformations of landscape, niche construction, migration, boundary defense, and other density-dependent phenomena that have had profound consequences for the planet’s ecosystems and contemporary human societies.

Author Contributions

This article was mainly written by P.-L.Y. and edited by K.I. and M.Z. This Special Issue was designed and organized by P.-L.Y., K.I. and M.Z., with equal contributions. P.-L.Y. provided most English editing of the articles. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This article was not supported by external funding.


The co-editors thank the editorial staff of Quaternary and anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful contributions to improve this article and the Special Issue. Individual contributors are also thanked for extraordinary scholarship and efforts to publish in a venue that will reach an international audience.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


  1. Larson, G.; Piperno, D.R.; Allaby, R.G.; Purugganan, M.D.; Andersson, L.; Arroyo-Kalin, M.; Barton, L.; Vigueira, C.C.; Denham, T.; Dobney, K.; et al. Current perspectives and the future of domestication studies. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2014, 111, 6139–6146. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef][Green Version]
  2. Chen, S.Q.; Yu, P.L. Early “Neolithics” of China: Variation and Evolutionary Implications. J. Anthropol. Res. 2017, 73, 149–180. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef][Green Version]
  3. Habu, J.; Lape, P.V.; Olsen, J.W. Handbook of East and Southeast Asian Archaeology; Springer: New York, NY, USA, 2017; ISBN 9781493965199. [Google Scholar]
  4. Ikeya, K.; Ogawa, H.; Mitchell, P. Interactions between Hunter–Gatherers and Farmers: From Prehistory to Present; National Museum of Ethnology: Osaka, Japan, 2009; ISBN 9784901906654. [Google Scholar]
  5. Kuo, S.C. New Frontiers in the Neolithic Archaeology of Taiwan (5600–1800 BP); Springer: New York, NY, USA, 2019; ISBN 9789813292628. [Google Scholar]
  6. Wu, X.H.; Zhang, C.; Goldberg, P.; Cohen, D.; Pan, Y.; Arpin, T.; Bar-Yosef, O. Early Pottery at 20,000 Years Ago in Xianrendong Cave, China. Science 2012, 336, 1696–1700. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef] [PubMed][Green Version]
  7. Bettinger, R.L.; Barton, L.; Morgan, C. The origins of food production in north China: A different kind of agricultural revolution. Evol. Anthropol. Issues News Rev. 2010, 19, 9–21. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
  8. Chen, S.Q. Prehistoric Modernization: A Cultural Ecological Approach of the Origins of Agriculture in China; Science Press: Beijing, China, 2014; ISBN 9787030397263. (In Chinese) [Google Scholar]
  9. Chen, S.Q.; Yu, P.-L. Intensified Foraging and the Roots of First Farming in China. J. Anthropol. Res. 2017, 73, 381–411. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef][Green Version]
  10. Fuller, D.Q.; Qin, L.; Zheng, Y.F.; Zhao, Z.J.; Chen, X.G.; Hosoya, L.A.; Sun, G.-P. The Domestication Process and Domestication Rate in Rice: Spikelet Bases from the Lower Yangtze. Science 2009, 323, 1607–1610. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef] [PubMed][Green Version]
  11. Gross, B.L.; Zhao, Z. Archaeological and genetic insights into the origins of domesticated rice. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2014, 111, 6190–6197. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef] [PubMed][Green Version]
  12. Zhang, M. Microblade–based societies in North China at the end of the Ice Age. Quaternary 2020, 3, 20. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
  13. Zhao, C. The climate fluctuation of the 8.2 ka BP cooling event and the transition into Neolithic lifeways in North China. Quaternary 2020, 3, 23. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
  14. Liu, R.Z.; Liu, H.; Chen, S.Q. Alternative Adaptation Strategy during the Paleolithic-Neolithic Transition: Potential Use of Aquatic Resources in the Western Middle Yangtze Valley, China. Quaternary 2020, 3, 28. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
  15. Yu, P.-L. Modeling Incipient Use of Neolithic Cultigens by Taiwanese Foragers: Perspectives from Niche Variation Theory, the Prey Choice Model, and the Ideal Free Distribution. Quaternary 2020, 3, 26. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
  16. Kaner, S.; Yano, K. Early Agriculture in Japan. In The Cambridge World History; Barker, G., Ed.; Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 2015; Volume 14, pp. 353–386. ISBN 9780511978807. [Google Scholar]
  17. Fujio, S. Early Grain Cultivation and Starting Processes in the Japanese Archipelago. Quaternary 2021, 4, 3. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
  18. Takakura, J. Rethinking the Disappearance of Microblade Technology in the Terminal Pleistocene of Hokkaido, Northern Japan: Looking at Archaeological and Palaeoenvironmental Evidence. Quaternary 2020, 3, 21. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
  19. Nasu, H.; Momohara, A. The beginnings of rice and millet agriculture in prehistoric Japan. Quat. Int. 2015, 397, 504–512. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
  20. Ikeya, K. Ethnoarchaeology of Introducing Agriculture and Social Continuity among Sedentarised Hunter–Gatherers: The Transition from the Jomon to the Yayoi Period. Quaternary 2021, 4, 28. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
  21. Crawford, G.W. Advances in Understanding Early Agriculture in Japan. Curr. Anthropol. 2011, 52, S331–S345. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
Publisher’s Note: MDPI stays neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Share and Cite

MDPI and ACS Style

Yu, P.-L.; Ikeya, K.; Zhang, M. Introduction: New Discoveries and Theoretical Implications for the Last Foraging and First Farming in East Asia. Quaternary 2021, 4, 37.

AMA Style

Yu P-L, Ikeya K, Zhang M. Introduction: New Discoveries and Theoretical Implications for the Last Foraging and First Farming in East Asia. Quaternary. 2021; 4(4):37.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Yu, Pei-Lin, Kazunobu Ikeya, and Meng Zhang. 2021. "Introduction: New Discoveries and Theoretical Implications for the Last Foraging and First Farming in East Asia" Quaternary 4, no. 4: 37.

Article Metrics

Back to TopTop