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From State to Empire: Human Dietary Change on the Central Plains of China from 770 BC to 220 AD Open Access


Other title
Stable isotope analysis
Eastern Zhou
Han Dynasty
Human diet
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Zhou, Ligang
Supervisor and department
Garvie-Lok, Sandra (Department of Anthropology)
Examining committee member and department
DeBernardi, Jean (Department of Anthropology)
Losey, Robert (Department of Anthropology)
Harrington, Lesley (Department of Anthropology)
Pechenkina, Ekaterina (Department of Anthropology, City University of Newyork)
Department of Anthropology

Date accepted
Graduation date
2016-06:Fall 2016
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
This study is designed to investigate human dietary features on the Central Plains of China during the social transition from regional states to centralized empire, which occurred during the period from the Eastern Zhou to the Han Dynasty (770BC-220 AD). Human remains from four sites and animal remains from one site dated within this period were sampled for stable isotope analysis. The faunal isotope data reflect variable animal husbandry strategies, probably corresponding with the economic values of different species. The animal remains included pig, dog, cattle, and sheep, all of which were the possible meat resources for both the Zhou and Han people, while pigs and dogs were the most common ones. The human isotopic data reveal different dietary practices between the Eastern Zhou rural and urban areas. The urban diet featured limited meat and a significant amount of wheat, and it was further stratified by social status: poor individuals in the city consumed more wheat than the wealthy. In contrast, contemporary rural people ate millet as their staple food and included slightly more meat in their diet. This likely indicates that Eastern Zhou urban diets suffered from constant warfare and the concentration of population in the city, while those of the contemporary rural people remained stable and similar to traditional diets before this era. The Han Dynasty witnessed significant changes in human diet, reflected in a substantial increase in the dietary proportions of wheat and meat. The most apparent feature of human diet during this transforming period is that status-related differences were reflected in the amount of wheat rather than meat in the diet. This change was the first significant human dietary transition on the Central Plains since Late Neolithic times, and had profound influences on human diet and health in the following dynasties. Along with the investigation of dietary change, this study also discusses several topics that the literature has, thus far, debated or addressed insufficiently. Based on temporal comparisons of stable carbon and nitrogen isotope values, the “bottom-up model” (from low social class to upper class) of wheat’s expansion in human diet on the plains is supported, and the long-held belief by many experts regarding soybeans as a staple food has been rejected. Additionally, the possibility of manuring effects on human collagen isotopic values on the plains has been excluded. A comparison in the context of published data has revealed a unidirectional dietary difference between males and females in agricultural societies of the Zhou and Han dynasties, probably related to sexual division of labour. Dietary isotopes’ potential as preliminary indicators of human mobility in China have been evaluated for the first time and the results are exciting. They demonstrate that distinctive dietary features are not only able to reveal possible individual immigrants, but are also capable of identifying possible moving populations. In conclusion, the drastic social changes from state to empire affected human diets significantly. However, suffering during these chaotic times triggered a significant dietary change, which eventually benefited both individuals and society in ancient China. This study demonstrates the value of expanding the research aspects of dietary isotopes by re-analyzing the published data. It reveals the considerable potential of historical stable isotope studies to illuminate details of human diets previously invisible to other methods.
This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for the purpose of private, scholarly or scientific research. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
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