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What is the History of Rice Cultivation?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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The history of rice cultivation is undoubtedly fascinating. This is a cereal grain considered important to many people of the world and that has an auspicious presence on six of the seven continents. Though archaeologists and agriculturalists know much about rice cultivation at present and the history of its growth dating several thousand years back, the story of the beginning of rice is not so clear, evoking much scholarly debate.

Prevailing theories are that rice was first domesticated in Asia, probably in China. Putting a date on when this occurred is difficult. Some believe earliest rice cultivation occurred about 12,000 years ago, and others date this to about 4000-5000 BCE. There is clear evidence that by around 1000-2000 BCE, much of Asia including India had refined methods for growing rice.

Rice cultivation in Africa is not quite the same and takes two different paths. Wild African rice or the strain now known as O. glaberrima (different from the Asian O. sativa) may have been grown as far back as 3500 BCE, but when traders brought O. sativa to Africa, native rice cultivation was discarded in large amount. This occurred perhaps as early as the 600s CE. It was the Middle East that likely brought Africans O. Sativa and it is throughout that in the Middle East and parts of the Mediterranean, rice had become an important crop by about 300 BCE.

It took much longer for rice cultivation to occur in Europe. Spain may have grown it first in the 10th century. Exposure to the crop certainly would have been expected during the crusades, and contact with China initiated by explorers like Marco Polo increased familiarity. Serious rice cultivation in Europe in places like France is noted in the 1400s.

It’s important to consider the 1400s, since this is also the beginning of the Age of Explorers; though many now feel exploration began much earlier, especially by Asian sailors. It’s clear, however, that European explorers are likely responsible for bringing rice to the “New World,” and suddenly this crop became a staple food in South and Central America and in North America, and spread to most of the island groups surrounding these continents. Ultimately, rice cultivation also occurred in Australia, though this is much later on the time line, and serious rice growth didn’t begin until the 20th century.

It is so easy to think of all the regional foods that incorporate rice. Without rice, people would not have sushi, paella, arroz con pollo, jambalaya, risotto, red beans and rice, many types of curry, or the various forms of rice pudding, to give just a few examples. Even a Rice Krispie® treat would be out of reach. Cultivation of this grain is representative of the power of communication between cultures and perhaps also the fact that many people find rice a delicious grain to consume.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By Mor — On Mar 17, 2014

@Fa5t3r - Actually, wild potatoes were essentially poisonous before they were bred by people to be edible. A lot of our foods looked very different when they were wild and in some cases the wild relatives don't exist any longer so we don't have anything to compare them with.

Rice probably wasn't all that labor intensive when we were still collecting it from the wild. We just had to put up with the hull still being on the seed.

By Fa5t3r — On Mar 16, 2014

@umbra21 - It's an interesting theory, although I suppose it would apply to the stable starch of every culture as an influence on them. Honestly, I'm amazed that we started growing grains at all, they are so labor intensive compared with other forms of starch. I know if I had the choice between growing potatoes and growing rice, I would definitely choose the potatoes. They are about half the work and it's fairly obvious that they are food, while wild rice looks like there's nothing in there to eat.

By umbra21 — On Mar 15, 2014

One of my favorite theories about rice cultivation surrounds the way it changed the cultures of people who grew it. If you look at the people in Europe, who were often growing seasonal crops, they would basically just have a short period of intense work and then a long period (winter) where there wasn't much to do. Planning didn't make much of a difference to their yield. It was all to do with the weather and basically luck.

But when you're growing rice, there is a much longer cultivation period and working hard and intelligently makes a huge difference in your yield. So countries where people traditionally grew rice are often more inclined to have longer working hours and more intense focus on schooling and precision.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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