A Journey to the West: The Ancient Dispersal of Rice Out of East Asia

Spengler, Robert N. III, Soren Stark, Xinying Zhou, Daniel Fuks, Li Tang, Basira Mir‑Makhamad, Rasmus Bjørn, Hongen Jiang, Luca M. Olivieri, Alisher Begmatov, and Nicole Boivin (2021) A Journey to the West: The Ancient Dispersal of Rice Out of East Asia. Rice.

Rice is one of the most culturally valued and widely grown crops in the world today, and extensive research over the past decade has clarified much of the narrative of its domestication and early spread across East and South Asia. However, the timing and routes of its dispersal into West Asia and Europe, through which rice eventually became an important ingredient in global cuisines, has remained less clear. In this article, we discuss the piecemeal, but growing, archaeobotanical data for rice in West Asia. We also integrate written sources, linguistic data, and ethnohistoric analogies, in order to better understand the adoption of rice outside its regions of origin. It appears that humans gradually caused the spread of rice westward, with the social standing and culinary uses repeatedly changing over time. It was present in West Asia and Europe by the tail end of the first millennium BC, but did not become a significant crop in West Asia until the past few centuries. Complementary historical, linguistic, and archaeobotanical data illustrate two separate and roughly contemporaneous routes of westward dispersal, one along the South Asian coast and the other through Silk Road trade. By better understanding the adoption of this water-demanding crop in the arid regions of West Asia, we explore an important chapter in human adaptation and agricultural decision making.

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