MPI-SHH Project Members

Key External Project Partners

  • Barbara Cerasetti (Bologna University)
  • Paula Doumani (Nazarbayev University in Astana)
  • Michael Frachetti (Washington University in St. Louis)
  • Farhad Maksudov (Institute of Archaeology, National Academy of Sciences in Uzbekistan)
  • Lynne Rouse (German Institute of Archaeology in Berlin)

Project Funding

This project is funded by the Max Planck Society. Additional support has been provided by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, the German Archaeological Institute, Wenner Gren Foundation (Gr. CONF-673), Volkswagen and Mellon Foundations, I-CARES, Washington University in St. Louis, and the National Science Foundation (1010678).

Acknowledgements

All laboratory research for this project is being conducted in the Paleoethnobotanical Laboratory at the Max Planck Institute in Jena. Previous research was conducted in the Paleoethnobotany Laboratory in the Anthropology Department at Washington University in St. Louis, under the directorship of Gayle Fritz and at Free University Berlin in the Paleontology Division in Pavel Tarasov’s lab.

Anthropogenic Landscapes of the Silk Road

The landscape of Inner Asia may seem ‘wild’ and untamed; however, it is the direct product of thousands of years of human occupation. People have shaped the land for farming and herding and harvested the forests for fuel and lumber, ultimately reshaping every ecosystem.
A modern Pistachio plantation in the Pamir Mountains of Uzbekistan, photo taken in 2013. The wild progenitor of our modern pistachio was one of the dominant species in the ancient fruit and nut forests that once covered the foothills of Inner Asia. Zoom Image
A modern Pistachio plantation in the Pamir Mountains of Uzbekistan, photo taken in 2013. The wild progenitor of our modern pistachio was one of the dominant species in the ancient fruit and nut forests that once covered the foothills of Inner Asia.

Central Asia expresses extreme ecological variability across space and also through time; with increasing paleoecological investigation, it is becoming clear that humans played a direct role in shaping this variability. Over the past several millennia humans have adapted to the diversity and unpredictability of the region, and in the process they have reshaped the landscape. Archaeobiological data are illustrating how biologically different the foothills of Central Asia were in the past; the forests that once covered much of the foothill ecotone played an important role in early human occupation. These wild fruit and nut forests provided foraged and hunted food for early settlers, and the rich ecological pockets in river valleys have been and still are key to pastoral grazing. In addition, many of the familiar fruit and nuts that we cultivate today, such as the apple and pistachio, originated in these now largely lost shrubby forests.

The Talgar Alluvial fan in the Tien Shan Mountains about 20km from the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan, a region that has been heavily cultivated for at least two millennia (photo taken in 2008). Zoom Image
The Talgar Alluvial fan in the Tien Shan Mountains about 20km from the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan, a region that has been heavily cultivated for at least two millennia (photo taken in 2008).

As scholars study the archaeology and paleoenvironments of Central Asia, it is becoming increasingly clear how closely intertwined humans were with the evolution of the landscape. Beyond converting forests into pastureland and agricultural fields, humans have directly modified forest composition and vegetation cover across Eurasia. The gradual deforestation of the mountain foothills of Central Asia seems to reflect an intensification of human economy, especially surround intensive metal smelting, and reflects a long term process of cultural Niche Construction. Humans have continued to shape the landscape of Central Asia since the fourth millennium B.C., clearing land for herd pastures, opening up river valleys for farming, and harvesting wood resources for fuel and lumber. The “Anthropogenic Landscapes of the Silk Road” project is showing that the biotic landscapes of Central Asia are a direct artifact of prehistoric humans, and these anthropogenic ecosystems illustrate part of the story of the Silk Road.

Related Publications

Spengler, R. N., III, Nigris, I., Cerasetti, B., & Rouse, L. M. 2016 The Breadth of Dietary Economy in the Central Asian Bronze Age: A case study from at Adji Kui in the Murghab Region of Turkmenistan. Journal of Archaeological Science. Online First

Miller, N. F., Spengler, R. N., & Frachetti, M. 2016 Millet Cultivation across Eurasia: Origins, Spread, and the Influence of Seasonal Climate. The Holocene. 26:15661575.

Spengler, R. N., III 2015 Agriculture in the Central Asian Bronze Age. Journal of World Prehistory. 28(3):215–253.

Spengler, R. N., III 2014 Niche Dwelling vs. Niche Construction: Landscape Modification in the Bronze and Iron Ages of Central Asia. Human Ecology. 42(6):813–821.

Spengler, R. N., III, &Willcox, G. 2013 Archaeobotanical Results from Sarazm, Tajikistan, an Early Bronze Age Village on the Edge: Agriculture and Exchange. Journal of Environmental Archaeology. 10(3):211–221.

Spengler, R. N., III, Frachetti, M. D., & Fritz, G. J. 2013 Ecotopes and Herd Foraging Practices in the Bronze and Iron Age, Steppe and Mountain Ecotone of Central Asia. Journal of Ethnobiology. 33(1):125–147.

More Information

robertnspengler.com

 
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