Xinyi Liu

​Assistant Professor of Archaeology
PhD, University of Cambridge
research interests:
  • Plant domestication
  • Food Globalization in Prehistory
  • Millet
  • Prehistory of China
  • Archaeobotany
  • Stable Isotopes
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  • Washington University
  • CB 1114
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Xinyi Liu utilizes a range of stable isotopes and archaeobotanical approaches to explore how past societies domesticated, produced and consumed plants and animals, and how they adopted to new environments in the context of spread of farming.

Liu’s research is devoted to exploring reasons why some early foragers became farmers and the food globalization in prehistory. He addresses questions such as how plant and animal domestications developed in the context of human production and consumption, and how those early food ways spread to new environments in a global context. Field research in Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Xinjiang and Tibet in China, and regions in Kazakhstan, Russia and Romania and a suite of laboratory based projects have shaped his core theories concerning the distinct ecological and cultural features of plant and animal domestication in China and the subsequent movement of staple crops across the Old World. Understanding these processes provides perspectives could not only transform our knowledge of the past but also raise awareness of the present and future utility of those early food ways. His research also contributes to the understanding the prehistoric trajectories of ancient Chinese societies more generally, and their implications for our understanding of human past on a more global scale.

Methodologically, his research utilizes a range of stable isotopes (C, N, O) and archaeobotanical approaches to address questions about paleodiets and paleoclimates. As the Principal Investigator of the Laboratory for the Analysis of Early Food-Webs (LAEF), he directs research rooted in isotopic and archaeobotanical methods to illustrate how past societies domesticated, produced and consumed plants and animals, how they adopted to new environments in the context of spread of farming. Members of the LAEF group are currently carrying out research in eastern Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, central and eastern Tibet, north China plain, southern Peru and Costa Rica.

Liu is increasingly drawn to the problem of the “lost” food traditions. Liu’s research group has also been working to investigate previously undocumented plant domestications, and previously undocumented pathways to domestication including ecological relations between animal and plant and their adaptations in extreme environments such as high altitudinal and high latitudinal regions. He also pays close attention to the past and future of small grained minor cereals; particularly around 30 taxa originating from several continents and collectively known as millets. These include genus such as Panicum, Setaria, Eleusine, Pennisetum, Digitaria, Paspalum and Echinochloa, commonly known as Asian, Indian and African millets. They share common ecological features, such as short summer growing seasons, modest water requirements and C4 photosynthesis. Collectively, they constituted more than half of the Eurasian and African agricultures in prehistoric times. When a food tradition was lost, were memories associated with it lost too?

Selected Recent Publications (last three years, see full list in Liu's CV)

Liu, X., P.J. Jones, G. Motuzaite Matuzeviviute, H.V. Hunt, D.L. Lister, T. An, N. Przelomska, C.J. Kneale, Z. Zhao & M.K. Jones, 2019. From ecological opportunism to multi-cropping: mapping food globalization in prehistory. Quaternary Science Reviews, 206(15), 21-8. (Abstract)

Liu, X., E. Lightfoot & D. Fuller, 2018. Introduction: Far from the hearth, in Far from the Hearth: Essays in Honour of Martin K. Jones, eds. E. Lightfoot, X. Liu & D. Fuller. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Conversations, 1-3. (Link)

Liu, X., G. Motuzaite Matuzeviciute & H.V. Hunt, 2018. From a fertile idea to a fertile arc: The origins of broomcorn millet 15 years on, in Far from the Hearth: Essays in Honour of Martin K. Jones, eds. E. Lightfoot, X. Liu & D.Q. Fuller. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Conversations, 155-64. (Link)

Lightfoot, E., X. Liu & P.J. Jones, 2018. A world of C4 pathways: On the use of δ13C values to identify the consumption of C4 plants in archaeological record, in Far from the Hearth: Essays in Honour of Martin K. Jones, eds. E. Lightfoot, X. Liu & D.Q. Fuller. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Conversations, 165-76. (Link)

Reid, R.E.B., L. Lalk, F. Marshall & X. Liu, 2018. Carbon and nitrogen isotope variability in the seeds of two African millet species: Pennisetum glaucum and Eleusine coracana. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, 32(19), 1693-702. (Abstract)

Lister, D.L., H. Jones, H.R. Oliveira, C.A. Petrie, X. Liu, J. Cockram, C.J. Kneale, O. Kovaleva & M.K. Jones, 2018. Barley heads east: Genetic analyses reveal routes of spread through diverse Eurasian landscapes. PLOS ONE, 13(7), e0196652. (Abstract)

Liu, X., E. Margaritis & M.K. Jones, 2018. From the harvest to the meal in prehistoric China and Greece: A comparative approach to the social context of food, in Ancient Greece and China Compared, eds. G. Lloyd, G. Dong & J.J. Zhao. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 355-72.

Tian, D., J. Ma, J. Wang, T. Pilgram, Z. Zhao & X. Liu, 2017. Cultivation of naked barley by early Iron Age agro-pastoralists in Xinjiang, China. Environmental Archaeology, 23(4), 416-25. (Abstract)

Liu, X., D.L. Lister, Z. Zhao, C.A. Petrie, X. Zeng, P.J. Jones, R. Staff, A.K. Pokharia, J. Bates, R.N. Singh, S.A. Weber, G. Motuzaite Matuzeviviute, G. Dong, H. Li, H. Lü, H. Jiang, J. Wang, J. Ma, D. Tian, G. Jin, L. Zhou, X. Wu & M.K. Jones, 2017. Journey to the East: diverse routes and variable flowering times for wheat and barley en route to prehistoric China. PLOS ONE, 12(11), e0209518. (Abstract)

Dong, G., Y. Yang, X. Liu, H. Li, Y. Cui, H. Wang, G. Chen, J. Dodson & F. Chen, 2017. Prehistoric trans-continental cultural exchange in the Hexi Corridor, northwest China. The Holocene, 28(4), 621-8. (Abstract)

Liu, X., Z. Zhao & M.K. Jones, 2017. From people's commune to household responsibility: Ethnoarchaeological perspectives of millet production in prehistoric northeast China. Archaeological Research in Asia, 11, 51-7. (Abstract)

Song, J., H. Lu, Z. Zheng & X. Liu, 2017. Archaeobotanical remains from the mid-first millennium AD site of Kaerdong in western Tibet. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, 10(8), 2015-26. (Abstract)

Ren, X., X. Lemoine, D. Mo, T.R. Kidder, Y. Guo, Z. Qin & X. Liu, 2016. Foothills and intermountain basins: Does China's Fertile Arc have a 'Hilly Flanks'? Quaternary International, 426(28), 86-96. (Abstract)

Liu, X., D.L. Lister, Z.-Z. Zhao, R.A. Staff, P.J. Jones, L.-P. Zhou, A.K. Pokharia, C.A. Petrie, A. Pathak, H.-L. Lu, G. Motuzaite Matuzeviciute, J. Bates, T.K. Pilgram & M.J. Jones, 2016. The virtues of small grain size: Potential pathways to a distinguishing feature of Asian wheats. Quaternary International, 426(28), 107-9. (Abstract)

Dong, G., L. Ren, X. Jia, X. Liu, S. Dong, H. Li, Z. Wang, Y. Xiao & F. Chen, 2016. Chronology and subsistence strategy of Nuomuhong culture in the Tibetan Plateau. Quaternary International, 426(28), 42-9. (Abstract)

Liu, X., R.E.B. Reid, E. Lightfoot, G. Motuzaite Matuzeviciute & M.K. Jones, 2016. Radical change and dietary conservatism: Mixing model estimates of human diets along the Inner Asia and China's mountain corridors. The Holocene, 26(10), 1556-65. (Abstract)

Liu, X., 2016. Stable isotope analysis of human and animal remains from Ganguya and Sanbadongzi, in Report on the Archaeological Excavation of Ganguya Cemetery, ed. S. Li. Beijing: Cultural Relics Publishing House, 406-14. (in Chinese)

Jones, M.K., H. Harriet, C.J. Kneale, E. Lightfoot, D. Lister, X. Liu & G. Motuzaite Matuzeviciute, 2016. Food Globalisation in Prehistory: the agrarian foundation of an interconnected continent. Journal of the British Academy, 4, 73-87. (Abstract)


Archaeology of China – Food and People

Environmental Archaeology

Pathways to Domestication

Bio-molecular Archaeology – Are you what you eat?