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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.