Against the grain

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"˜Miraculous' sprouting of 3,000-year-old rice grains has Vietnamese scientists excited and in a tizzy

Excavation work in progress at the Den ramparts in Me Linh District, Hanoi. Scientists are intrigued by the possibility that 3,000-year-old rice grains collected from the site have sprouted after being soaked in water for two days.

Last week a scientist from Hanoi's university generated a buzz when she claimed ten rice grains found among the vestiges of a 3,000-year-old rampart more than a month ago had sprouted after being soaked in water for two days.

"No one believes that rice grains buried underground for thousands of years can sprout. We were so amazed and cannot explain why they have such a strong and miraculous vitality," Associate professor Lam Thi My Dung of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities told Thanh Nien.

According to Dung, the grains were unearthed nearly one meter underground at the excavation site of the Den ramparts in Hanoi's Me Linh District.

They were found slightly burned with other things like fish bones and shells in an area with traces of an ancient kitchen dating back 3,000-3,500 years, the scientist said.

She said they have enough evidence like video tapes of their excavation to rule out any possibility that the grains were recently planted.

However, to come up with the most convincing answer about the grains' age, local and international scientists need to join hands and conduct many tests, Dung said.

Dung's claim drew interest from scientists in different fields, archaeology to agriculture.

Many made field trip excavation site to learn more about the area where the grains were discovered.

Nguyen Lan Cuong, deputy general secretary of the Vietnam Archaeology Association, said he was first confused about the discovery, thinking mice had probably brought them there while digging holes.

But, after checking the area with his own hands and eyes, Cuong said he was now convinced that it dated back 3,000 years, although they still need biological tests carried out by the Hanoi-based Agricultural Genetics Institute to be sure

The sprouts from rice grains believed to date back three millennia

The rice sprouts have been handed over to the institute for further research and have been placed under strict care and close observation.

Agricultural experts expect that if it is truly ancient rice, it should be ready for the October harvest.

Nguyen Van Hoan, chief of the Rice Institute under the Hanoi University of Agriculture, said after the rice produces grains, the grains' DNA should be taken and compared with the 44,500 current genes to come to a definitive conclusion.

The tests, however, are too complicated and difficult to conduct in Vietnam, Hoan said.

Nguyen Van Bo, head of the Vietnam Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said he was concerned that the sprouts are very likely at risk because the sprouting is currently out of season, and the weather is unusually hot.

Dung said they will send the husks overseas to learn about the rice's age accurately, using advanced technologies.

Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Cao Duc Phat said he was also amazed by the discovery. He said he had ordered related agencies to cooperate together with each other and with foreign scientists to study the grains.

He pledged the government would provide scientists with all necessary support for the studies.

"I'm also looking forward to the studies' results," Phat said.

Unknown environment

Tran Duy Quy, former chief of the Vietnam Agricultural Genetics Institute, said most advanced technologies allow rice grains to sprout after being preserved under in-vitro conditions for between 50- 100 years.

Currently only a few countries like the US, Germany and France can do so, while Vietnam can preserve rice grains for 15 years at most.

"So, it's very likely that the grains found at the Den ramparts had been preserved in a special environment," Quy said.

Bo also told Thanh Nien: "We can't rule out the possibility that the grains were preserved in a special environment that people have never known about."

However, he said they had difficulties in learning about the environment at the moment, because the area where the rice grains were found is no longer complete.

He said his institute's experts planned to follow archaeologists to the ramparts for the next excavation, which is expected to take place once the rice's age is determined to be several thousand years old.

The Den ramparts were discovered in 1970 and since then has had nearly 280-square-meters of its 20,000-square-meter area excavated seven times. The latest digging started last month.

Scientists so far have concluded that the ramparts' inside used to house the country's largest center of metallurgy during the pre-Dong Son period, dating back 2,700- 4,000 years, including the Dong Dau Culture.

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