The modern Asian diet is based mostly around rice. Was rice a major part of the paleolithic Asian diet? Did they know how to process and eat rice before agriculture?

Aside from meats, what were other major parts of their diet? What kind of fruits were common?

I'm looking mainly at East Asian (China/Korean/Japan) kind of diets, but alternative diets for other rice eaters (like Southeast Asian, Indian) would also be helpful.

  • rice existed in the wild long before it was calculated, much like other grains consumed elsewhere. And much like grains elsewhere, people'd have known that seeds are a rich source of nutrients and eaten them in many ways, maybe as a porridge.
    – jwenting
    Mar 18, 2013 at 11:41
  • 3
    Actually, in the modern day, up in Northern China, rice is not the staple food; they eat noodles and buns, which are usually (there are rice noodles) are made from materials other than rice.
    – Russell
    Mar 19, 2013 at 8:03
  • 1
    that too. Asia is too large to make blanket statements like 'everyone eats rice', just like Europe is too large to claim that 'everyone eats raw herring' :)
    – jwenting
    Mar 20, 2013 at 6:59
  • 2
    If James Scott' book "Against the Grain" ist somewhat correct, humans probably had no staple food before agriculture, but several subsistence strategies (foraging plants, fishing, hunting, domesticated plants as a minor source of calory) between which they would shift according to season, climate, competition from other groups etc.
    – mart
    May 3, 2021 at 20:40

2 Answers 2


This paper in Nature is fascinating - unfortunately, the chemical studies described were not performed on ancient East Asians, but it lines up with archaeological and anthropological evidence worldwide.

There have only been two studies of Palaeolithic modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens. A study of the isotope values of humans from the late Upper Palaeolithic (ca 13 000 years old) site of Gough's and Sun Hole Cave in Southern England (Richards et al, 2000a) indicated, again by the delta15N values, that the main source of dietary protein was animal-based, and most likely herbivore flesh. The second study (Richards et al, 2001) was a survey of isotope values of humans from Gravettian and later (approximately 30 000-20 000 years old) Eurasian sites. The delta13C and delta15N values here indicated high animal protein diets, but the type of animal protein was more varied than the Neanderthals, incorporating aquatic foods in their diets. As this study was a survey, and associated faunal delta13C and delta15N values were not measured, it is not possible to further pinpoint the sources of dietary protein at all of these sites. Interestingly, this adaptation to aquatic resources becomes more extreme in much later (ca 10 000-5000 BP, depending on area) Mesolithic periods in parts of Europe. For example, isotope studies of Mesolithic humans from the Danube Gorges in Southeastern Europe indicate that the majority of protein was from freshwater fish, which is supported by the archaeological evidence of fishing equipment and large numbers of fish bones (Bonsall et al, 1997).

More recent archaeological chemical analyses, such as the one done on remains from Tianyuan cave, also find extensive freshwater fish consumption, indicating things were similar in East Asia. The evidence is that the diet of modern humans in the paleolithic worldwide was primarily animal flesh, supplemented by easily gathered plant material.

Paleolithic tools used in the gathering or preparation of plant foods are either absent, or unrecognizable as such - in light of such an absence, and with the evidence that the diet was primarily meat-based, it must be inferred that plant-based foods that required processing or extensive effort to gather was not a large part of the diet.

This includes wild rice and other grains, most of which required extensive domestication efforts. The earliest evidence of rice consumption only dates to the early neolithic, 11-12kybp, and wild barley only goes as far back as 23kybp, but not as a staple, and not in East Asia. There is one 2009 study that concludes that other wild grains were harvested as early as 90kybp, and claims to have found stone tools to prove it, but this is not yet corroborated, and may not be widespread. The chemical analyses show that animal protein was the dominant dietary staple.

  • About all the fish: Modern humans seem to have rather a lot of aquatically helpful adaptations not found in other primates.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 21, 2014 at 20:33

In terms of paleolithic food in Indian subcontinent there are few classical Tamil Litratures like "Purananuru" & "Madurai Kanchi" and relegious tamil Litrature "Devaram" and "Tiruvasakam" gives more information about the paleolithic food.

As per these literatures some of which are dated back to 600 BCE suggests that the peoples used to hunt for their food and they also domesticated animals like chicken and goat which were used as food. Rice cultivation was also present at that time. But, due to unpredictability of rain which remains the one of the few source for water at that time. The peoples have a alternate dry crops like millets which was eaten by boiling, streaming and eaten raw as well.

Per the documented evidences, we may conclude that the peoples of Indian subcontinent not only used rice as their staple food. But, also other forms of millets.

  • 3
    Tamil Literature and paleolithic age were contemporary? That can't be!!
    – Rajib
    Feb 21, 2014 at 15:16
  • Tamil Litrature and Paleothic age where not contemporaty. But, what i have given above is the available inputs from Tamil Litrature which speaks about the Paleothic food. I shall add more referance to the above shortly.
    – Karthick
    Feb 24, 2014 at 8:35
  • Tamil literature cannot speak of the early stone age period 11,000 years ago.
    – RonJohn
    May 11, 2019 at 6:16

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.