Archaeobotany Research Group

The archaeobotany group is composed of researchers studying human/plant interactions in the past by means of both macro- and microbotanical morphological methods. The team has ongoing research projects that span most of the temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere, but largely focuses on the understudied regions of Central Eurasia.

With more than 20 ongoing studies, members of the Archaeobotany Research Group are asking a variety of research questions related to past ecologies and economies. For example, the study of wood charcoal preserved in archaeological sites is helping elucidate the early cultivation of trees in desert oases and changes in woody vegetation communities across the foothills of Inner Asia. Additionally, the study of seed and fruit remains recovered from archaeological sites along the ancient Silk Road trading routes is helping clarify the processes of dispersal of plants across the Ancient World. Members of the archaeobotany group are exploring pressing research questions as varied as: 1) what role did the intensification of agricultural systems play in the gradual increase in social complexity; and 2) what cultural changes accompanied the earliest adoption of agriculture. The team is particularly interested in studying the domestication and dispersal of plants, which leads into their connections with the broader FEDD project.

The Fruits of Eurasia: Domestication and Dispersal project has been funded by an ERC grant awarded to Spengler, who, in turn, has recruited top scholars to explore the questions of where and when the foods you eat every day originate. The research agenda of FEDD links the biological and social sciences and has incorporated a wide range of archaeological science specialists. The team is focused on long-generation perennials, as there has been a bias in domestication studies towards cereals and legumes. The team seeks to identify the origins of some of the most familiar fruits in your kitchen and to better understand the processes of evolutionary change that resulted from human interaction. Interestingly, many of these tree crops appear to originate in the mountains of Central Asia and are tied into the ancient Silk Road trade routes as a vector or dispersal.

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Research Projects

Caves and Rock Shelters of Central Asia: Time capsules of human behavior

Project members: Kseniia Boxleitner, Robert N. Spengler III

Caves and rock shelters have attracted humans for hundreds of thousands of years. The well-preserved sediments within these natural time capsules provide detailed environmental, paleontological, and archaeological information. The Tian Shan and Pamir mountains have been an important cultural corridor of human movement between Central and East Asia throughout the Quaternary. Studies of caves and rock shelters located at various elevations and covering a broad time span are clarifying may pressing issues in Central Asian archaeology, including what the routes of dispersal for plants and animals looked like, the evolutionary changes of those organisms over time, and the dynamics of prehistoric cultural change.

This group is studying archaeobotanical remains recovered from four recently excavated cave sites in Central Asia – Obishir-5, Surungur, Sel’Ungur, Istikskaya, and Kurteke. The Obishir-5, Sel’Ungur and Surungur sites are located in the southern part of the Ferghana Valley, Kyrgyzstan – a crossroads between the western steppe and high mountain regions. While the Istikskaya and the Kurteke sites provide insights into the archaeology of high-elevation mountain occupations in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. The team seeks to reconstruct cooking habits, to trace possible trade and exchange relations with neighboring territories, to learn about the timing of intentional cultivation of plants in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, to have insights into interactions between changing environmental conditions and everyday life of people (e.g. fuel choices, plant availability) throughout the Holocene. Our collaborators from Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan are essential members of the project.

Living on the roof of the world: High-altitude adaptations in palaeoeconomy on the prehistoric Tibetan Plateau

MPI-SHH Project members: Li Tang, Robert Spengler, Patrick Roberts, Nicole Boivin

The Tibetan Plateau, also referred to as the ‘third pole’, represents one of the most challenging habitats on the planet. While selection at several genomic loci enabled early Tibetans to adapt biologically to living at high altitudes, the challenge of acquiring sufficient food from the frozen deserts of the plateau required novel cultural adaptations. However, we still know little about how ancient Tibetans who lived in different ecological niches fed themselves on the plateau. By combining archaeobotany, proteomics, and isotope analyses, our project aims to dive into the complicated high-altitude adaptations in prehistoric agriculture, pastoralism, and craft production. This project is contributing to knowledge of early peopling history on the Tibetan Plateau, and how our species adapted to extreme environments.

Kuckenburg: Exploring central Germany from a Bronze Age settlement to a medieval hilltop fortification

Project members: Barbara Zach

The Kuckenburg site in Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany, is unique in that there was a coexistence of different mortuary practices. Both inhumations and cremations ascribed to the Urnfield period are represented in archaeological contexts from a time period when cremations were, elsewhere, the main form of mortuary practice. Continuously occupied from the Late Paleolithic until the Early Middle Ages, the site enables the study of diets, demography, and environment through time. In a collaborative study involving researchers from institutions across Jena, we apply a multidisciplinary approach, including archaeobotany, ancient DNA, stable isotope analysis, osteoarchaeology, and material culture analysis to get a better understanding of the experiences and identities of Urnfield-related groups in the Late Bronze Age of Central Europe.

The archaeobotanical results demonstrate that a wide range of crops were grown, as well as collecting useful plants and weeds. Broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum) is present in some of the structures and the strong stable isotope signal for the consumption of broomcorn millet (signal for C4-plant consumption) in only some of the individuals raises questions about the tempo and nature of the appearance of the enigmatic crop in Central Europe. Analysis of genome-wide data from 18 inhumated individuals indicate that different mortuary practices at Kuckenburg were not the result of a new genetic group coming in but rather cultural variation within a local population. With this study we show that the combination of multiple lines of evidence allows us to reconstruct a more complete picture of the past at a critical Central European site.

Agricultural Intensification, Exchange, and Complexity in Ancient Eurasia

Project members: Robert N. Spengler III; Madelynn von Baeyer; Rita Dal Martello; Kseniia Boxleitner; Li Tang; Traci N Billings; Barbara Huber; Basira Mir Makhamad; Barbara Zach

The late first millennium B.C. across Inner Asia is usually considered a period when highly specialized nomads first appear: the Scythian mounted warriors. However, new scholarship is showing that the region of eastern Central Asia actually underwent a process of increased sedentism and intensification of farming pursuits in this time period. In studying this process, we are exploring links between the intensification of agriculture and increased exchange, population growth, craft specialization, and the development of an elite class. The long-held model for paleoeconomy in Central Asia suggested that there was a dramatic cultural shift during the mid-first millennium B.C. Academics often portray this change as a marked switch to a highly specialized pastoralist economy and often claim that is was driven by climatic changes. This shift is reflected in the popular literature by the first appearance of the highly specialized nomadic herders of the Central Asian Iron Age (Scythian, Saka, Wusun, and Yuezhi).

With increasing archaeobotanical investigation in the mountains of eastern Central Asia, it is becoming clear that the situation is far more complicated than this model implies. The archaeological data are showing evidence for intensified agriculture, including multiple crops that had different growing seasons and labor inputs (effectively staggering the labor demands), likely irrigated fields, and viticulture. Agropastoralists at these sites grew free-threshing wheat, hulled barley, broomcorn and foxtail millet, and grapes. Our understanding of social developments across Central Asia is currently in a state of reevaluation, and further archaeobotanical investigation may show that pastoral specialization took place in some areas, but it is clear that cereals were part of the economy and people were investing significant amounts of time into farming.

Anthropogenic Landscapes of the Silk Road

Project members: Robert N. Spengler III; Madelynn von Baeyer; Rita Dal Martello; Kseniia Boxleitner; Li Tang; Traci N Billings; Barbara Huber; Basira Mir Makhamad; Barbara Zach

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 altered the land for farming and herding and harvested the forests for fuel and lumber, ultimately reshaping every ecosystem. 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. 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.

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. The gradual deforestation of the mountain foothills of Central Asia seems to reflect an intensification of human economy, especially surround intensive metal smelting. 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 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.

First Farmers of Inner Asia

Project members: Robert N. Spengler III; Madelynn von Baeyer; Rita Dal Martello; Kseniia Boxleitner; Li Tang; Traci N Billings; Barbara Huber; Basira Mir Makhamad; Barbara Zach

The popular image of Inner Asia as the realm of the horse-back warrior nomads has permeated the academic literature for nearly a century, in doing so it has directed the nature of research questions asked by academics. Partially due to the generally accepted idea that people in this part of the world were ‘nomads’, archaeobotanical methods have been largely lacking. While archaeologists have studied farming systems in the ancient sedentary agricultural zones in southern Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), which date back to the sixth millennium B.C., the role of farming in the economy of people in eastern Kazakhstan and western China in the past has received little attention. Essentially, why look for farming if it is already accepted that these people were pastoralists? However, starting in 2006, with increased archaeobotanical investigation in eastern Kazakhstan, Spengler spearheaded the “First Farmers of Inner Asia” program.

As a result of this growing research focus, it is becoming increasingly clear that domesticated grains were known in the region at least as far back as the third millennium B.C. and that a mixed agropastoral economy was present by the mid-second millennium B.C. Inner Asia was not only the crossroads of the ancient world, but it was also a center of innovation and cultural development; in this sense, understanding the nature of early economy in the region directly feeds into our understanding of the prehistory of the Old World.

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