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.

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).

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. 2019 Fruit of the Sands: Silk Road Origins of the Food We Eat. University of California Press: Berkeley.

Spengler, R. N., III., Mueller, N. 2019 Grazing Animals Drove Domestication in Grain Crops. Nature Plants. 5: 656–662.

Cerasetti, B., Arciero, R., Carra, M., Curci, A., Grossi Mazzorin, J. De, Forni, L., Luneau, E., Rouse, L. M., Spengler, R. N., III. 2019 Bronze and Iron Age Urbanization in Turkmenistan: Preliminary Results From the Excavation of Togolok 1 on the Murghab Alluvial Fan. In: Baumer, C., Novak, M. (Eds.). Urban Cultures of Central Asia From the Bronze Age to the Karakhanids: Learnings and Conclusions From New Archaeological Investigations and Discoveries. Proceedings of the First International Congress on Central Asian Archaeology held at the University of Bern, 4-6 February 2016. pp. 63-72 Harressowitz Verdog: Bern.

Spengler, R. N., III. 2019 Origins of the Apple: The Role of Megafaunal Mutualism in the Domestication of Malus and Rosaceous Trees. Frontiers in Plant Science. 10(617):1-18.

Spengler, R. N., III. 2019 Dung Burning in the Archaeobotanical Record of West Asia: Where Are We Now?. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany. 28:215–227.

Spengler, R. N., III., Maksudov, F., Bullion, E., Merkle, A., Hermes, T., Frachetti, M. 2018 Arboreal Crops On the Medieval Silk Road: Archaeobotanical Studies at Tashbulak. PLOS ONE. 13(9):e0204582.

Spengler, R. N., III, Nigris, I. de, Cerasetti, B., Carra, M., Rouse, L. M. 2018 The Breadth of Dietary Economy in Bronze Age Central Asia: Case Study From Adji Kui 1 in the Murghab Region of Turkmenistan. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. 22:372-381.

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.

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