Fruits of the silk road

Many of the fruits, nuts, and grains on our dinner table once spread across the ancient world along the routes of the great Silk Road. Therefore, by studying which crops moved along these routes and at which time periods, we are studying the history of the food you eat – the greatest artifacts of the ancient Silk Road are in your kitchen today.

The Silk Road was the largest commerce network of the ancient world; it linked the disparate ends of the vast Eurasian supercontinent and in doing so connected the imperial centers of East and southwest Asia. Organized trade, including military outposts and government taxation, along the Silk Road dates back to the Han dynasty in the second century B.C. However, the exchange of goods, ideas, cultural practice, and genes, through the thousands of kilometers of desert and mountainous expanses comprising this region dates back to at least the third millennium B.C. This flow of cultural traits through Central Asia during the past four and a half millennia was a major driving force in the development of cultures across the Old World and shaped cuisines around the globe. With the increased application of modern scientific archaeology, specifically archaeobotanical methods, in Central Asia over the past decade, the importance of farming to past peoples of eastern Central Asia is becoming clearer. In addition, the spread of specific crops and crop varieties through the mountain valleys of Central Asia directly altered farming systems across Europe and Asia, introducing crops, such as millet, to Europe and wheat to China. Archaeobotanically tracing the path that plants followed on their long journey across Central Asia, helps us understand how these foods ultimately reached our dinner plates today.

Apples were domesticated in southeastern Kazakhstan in the Tien Shan Mountains, but when the spread out of Central Asia along the Silk Road, they were brought into contact with wild crabapple species and hybridized, creating what we think of as the modern apple.

The “Fruits of the Silk Road” project traces out the path of many familiar crops, particularly arboreal crops, as they spread across the Old World. A few examples of the studies that this project team is working on include: how and when apples spread out of Central Asia toward China and Europe; when peaches and apricots spread across the Old World; and when and from where melons spread. In order to understand these dissemination processes, Dr. Spengler teamed up with the Archaeology of the Qarakhanids project directed by Michael Frachetti and Farhad Maksudov. Analyzing archaeobotanical data from the late first and early second millennium A.D. archaeological site of Tashbulak has allowed the team to piece together what kinds of fruits, grains, and legumes were sold at market bazaars in Central Asia during the period of the Medieval Silk Road. Expanding upon the Tashbulak data, Dr. Spengler and his colleagues are using textual evidence and a growing archaeobotanical data set from multiple contemporaneous sites to explore how the Silk Road shaped the way we eat.

Related Publications

Spengler, R. N., Kidder, T. R. Henry, E. Maqsud, F. Panyushkina, I.Hermes, T. & Frachetti, M. D. In Review Fruits of the Silk Road: Medieval agriculture of Central Asia.

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