Tianluoshan: Reprise

Tea in the Neolithic Era or Getting to the Root of the Matter

There is an ongoing discussion within the archaeological community regarding the discovery of Camellia plant remains at the late Stone Age site of Tianluoshan, particularly the notion that the tea plant Camellia sinensis was domesticated.

The discourse concerns the sufficiency and analysis of data. Unlike the announcements of the discovery of Neolithic tea, exchanges over issues regarding the find take place in less public forums. However, all agree that the archaeology is sound and the discovery of Camellia roots is not in dispute. Moreover, there is an accord that the Camellia rhizomes, like the other botanicals found at Tianluoshan, are an important discovery.

Several concerns remain among archaeologists. While accepting the excavation of Camellia roots from within the residential area of the settlement, some have reservations as to whether the rhizomes were planted, suggesting instead that the spacing of the plants as well as the surrounding light-colored earth were naturally formed along the expanding growth of the roots. And though Tianluoshan is five meters above sea level, some question the growth of Camellia near marshy ground. Without proof of planting, the Camellia may not have been under cultivation, and so the specific ethnobotanical connections between these plants and the settlement community remain archaeologically yet unclear.

Although there is agreement that the roots are genus Camellia, there is no consensus as to species. This particular issue hinges on the chemical analysis used to determine plant species. Some further cite the lack of wild Camellia sinensis with which to compare the excavated Camellia rhizomes. Issues aside, the general concession is that the Camellia plant remains at Tianluoshan are most likely Camellia sinensis, while others encourage further investigation and the gathering of more information.

As for the Camellia roots at Tianluoshan, it remains to be seen as to whether or not the archaeological community will clarify the situation and come to unanimity. One step towards solution, once proposed by the archaeobotanists, is testing the DNA of the specimens. In the meantime, there continues to exist a respectful debate.


Many thanks to Dr. Ling-yu Hung for her inquiry into the controversy over Neolithic tea. And thanks to Dr. Qin Ling, archaeobotanist at the School of Archaeology and Museology, Beijing University and Dr. John T. Kirby, Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics, University of Miami for their kind assistance.

08. June 2013 by Steven D. Owyoung
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