World-renowned archaeobotanist speaks at ASU

By Bethany Gallimore
On April 11, 2013

Wednesday evening the College of Humanities and Social Sciences welcomed world-renowned archaeobotanist Dorian Fuller to ASU for his lecture, “The Archaeobotany of Rice: From Domestication to Global Warming.” Fuller, a professor at University College London, shared his field experiences with ASU students as a part of the RiziCulture Rice Research Program.

While rice is a major contributing factor to Arkansas’s economy, few non-agrarians may think of the common grain as worthy of extensive study. However, Fuller presented interesting research from University of West Virginia professor W. F. Runniman showing rice may be more relevant than we realize. According to Runniman’s studies, extensive rice paddies could be contributing to global warming. Rice paddies produce methane, a commonly recognized and incredibly potent greenhouse gas.

But the rice itself is not the source of the controversial gas. Instead, “The standing water creates an ideal environment for the bacteria that produce methane,” Fuller said.

Much more research has still to be conducted on this theory, Fuller said, and his of expertise lies not in the current, but in the ancient use of rice. As an archaeobotanist, Fuller examines the plant remains found at archeological digs, specifically those surrounding the Indian Ocean.

Examining the plant remnants at these sites can lend scientists clues to how the indigenous people found food, and how they continued to domesticate the native crops over periods of thousands of years.

For the past 3 years, Fuller’s studies have been financed by the UK Natural Environmental Research Council Grant. He and his fellow archaeobotanists have used this grant to develop a way to detect ancient rice ecosystems, and determine whether those ecosystems were naturally occurring or artificially created. “The aim of these studies is to see how rice was cultivated,” Fuller said. “We are primarily interested in the ecology.”

Plant remnants can be incredibly small, so the researchers use a method of waterlogging the dirt to sift out the natural particles. “These particles are small, usually carbonized, things you can’t see when you are digging,” Fuller said. “We use a large bag when we dig, then sift it through water. Anything that floats we collect, typically that’s all the organic material.”

Fuller is also interested in the genetics of rice, believing analysis of DNA makeup can shed light on the grain’s place of origin. “Scientists are attempting to discover the genetic origins of modern rice,” Fuller said. “We have to go back in the past and infer what we can from ancient history.”

Fuller’s lecture is a part of the Early Rice Project, and is part of a series of speakers on rice science including previous speakers on the origins and genetics of the grain, according to Erik Gilbert, professor of history and Associate Dean of Graduate School. “We are very excited to have Dr. Fuller here with us,” Gilbert said.

Professors are also taking advantage of this unique opportunity. Cal Shumway, assistant professor of agriculture, incorporated the lecture into his class requirements. Shumway said, “I’ve had my classes attend all three seminars. It gives them exposure outside production agriculture.”

Fuller will deliver a second lecture at 7:00 Thursday evening in room 183 of the Museum, this lecture entitled, “The Archaeological Pursuit of Early Agriculture: Recent Crop Domestication Research in China, India, and the Middle East.”


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