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?