Dr. Houyuan Lu’s Phytolith Laboratory in Beijing, China

Dr. Houyuan Lu’s Phytolith Laboratory in Beijing, China

Laboratory Introduction: Established in the 1990s, the Phytolith Laboratory is China’s pioneering facility dedicated to phytolith research, equipped with advanced instruments for analysing pollen, phytoliths, calcium oxalate crystals, and starch grains. It houses an extensive collection of modern and fossil specimens and utilises sophisticated software for bio-fossil data processing, image analysis, paleoenvironmental quantification, and time series analysis. The research team’s expertise in paleoecology, environmental archaeology, agricultural origins, and paleoenvironmental reconstruction has garnered international recognition, with findings published in prestigious journals such as Nature (2005), Science (2024), PNAS (2009, 2013, 2017, 2020), and Nature Communications(2019,2022), etc. Foundational research on phytolith morphology has been incorporated into university curricula worldwide. Currently, the team focuses on coastal environmental changes and cultural evolution, aiming to elucidate the interplay between environmenta evolution and cultural transitions.

Main Research and Achievements:

Morphological Research: By conducting a systematic analysis of over 2,000 representative modern plant species in China, they developed a comprehensive phytolith identification and classification system, established diagnostic criteria for distinguishing phytoliths of crops such as foxtail millet and broomcorn foxtail from their wild relatives, and created standards for identifying bulliform cells in wild and domesticated rice. They also developed identification markers for phytoliths and calcium oxalate crystals in economic crops like tea and hemp. They addressed previous challenges in identifying decayed and charred plant materials and established a standard 14C pretreatment process for phytoliths.

Archaeobotanical Research: They conducted phytolith analyses on archaeological sites across China, creating an extensive archaeobotanical database for Chinese dryland and rice agriculture and a comprehensive 14C dating archive. Their work led to the discovery of the world’s oldest noodles, dated to 4,000 years ago, pushing back the known history of noodles by 2,000 years. Additionally, they traced the origins of millet and rice in East Asia, crafting a detailed chronological framework for the evolution of prehistoric agriculture and early human activities in China.

Paleoclimatology Research: They collected and analysed surface sediment samples from over 3,000 locations across different climate zones in China, establishing quantitative conversion functions between surface phytoliths, pollen, and annual mean temperature and precipitation. They reconstructed temperature and precipitation changes in North and South China since the Last Glacial Maximum, revealing seven millennial-scale climate shifts. They quantified the climatic and environmental context of the domestication of millet and rice and the development of agricultural culture.

Human-Environment Relationship Studies: The researchers identified three millennial-scale warm periods during the Holocene that correlate with the peak of the Peiligang, Yangshao, and Longshan agricultural cultures, suggesting that favourable climate conditions in the East Asian monsoon region were crucial for early agriculture development. They proposed that Holocene sea-level changes triggered migrations among ancient coastal populations, impacting rice domestication. They demonstrated that escalating agricultural practices over the last two millennia significantly altered northern China’s ecosystems and invertebrate communities. Additionally, they highlighted the impact of millennial-scale temperature fluctuations on the seasonal growth and population dynamics of terrestrial molluscs. This research unveils the interplay between post-LGM climate patterns in East Asia and the progression of prehistoric human activities and faunal and floral succession, emphasising the intricate connection between environmental shifts and early cultural and agricultural development. Most recently, they proposed a novel method, the Error Inflection Point-Discriminant Technique (EIPDT), to distinguish and quantify past human impacts on vegetation.

Laboratory Team

Prof.Lu Houyuan (principal investigator)

Prof.Zhang Jianping


Prof.(Assoc.) Li Fengjiang


Prof.(Assoc.) Xu Deke



Prof.(Assoc.) Dong Yajie


   Postdoctoral fellow Cui Anning



Postdoctoral fellow Li Hao



Jointly trained doctoral candidate Fan Boashuo


Doctoral candidate Gao Zhongzhe



Doctoral candidate Zhang Zehao


Master’s degree candidate Li Chang



Master’s degree candidate Peng Siyi



Master’s degree candidate Wei Fukang


Master’s degree candidate Lv Jiatong

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