PLoS ONE (Jan 2020)

Abundance and morphology of charcoal in sediments provide no evidence of massive slash-and-burn agriculture during the Neolithic Kuahuqiao culture, China.

  • YuanFeng Hu,
  • Bin Zhou,
  • YueHan Lu,
  • JianPing Zhang,
  • SiYu Min,
  • MingZhe Dai,
  • SiYu Xu,
  • Qing Yang,
  • HongBo Zheng

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 15, no. 8
p. e0237592


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It remains debatable whether slash-and-burn practices were adopted in rice cultivation by the Neolithic Kuahuqiao culture in the Ningshao Plain, one of the birthplaces of rice farming. Here, we established charcoal-based indices to reconstruct the history of fire and vegetation in the Ningshao Plain since the last glacial period. We collected representative modern vegetation and conducted combustion and fragmentation experiments to simulate fire and depositional processes, respectively. Charcoals from modern vegetation show clear morphological differences between herbaceous and woody plants. In particular, the length to width ratios (L/W) of herbaceous charcoals were systematically higher than those of woody charcoals, and the associated end-member values were 4.50 and 1.94, respectively. These values were then applied to sediment cores (KHQ-14/15) collected in proximity to the Kuahuqiao archaeological site. Results show that the amount of combusted herbaceous plants increased sharply after the Holocene, and the most remarkable rise occurred around 8550 yr B.P. This observation may reflect local environment (sedimentary and/or climatic) changes or small-scale early human activities. During the Kuahuqiao cultural period (8250-7450 yr B.P.), the relative abundance of woody charcoals increased, but the overall fire intensity decreased. This finding suggests that the Kuahuqiao farming was restricted to a small geographic area and large-scale slash-and-burn farming activities were not adopted.