Agricultural Intensification, Exchange, and Complexity in Ancient Eurasia

The late first millennium B.C. across Inner Asia is usually considered the time period when highly specialized nomads first appear: the Scythian mounted warriors. However, a growing data set 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 grown, craft specialization, and the development of an elite class.

Farmers from near Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China, winnowing crops after the harvest; photo taken by Spengler in 2010.

The long-held and almost dogmatically accepted 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. These ‘nomads’ are said to appear in the social arena of Inner Asia during this period and are placed under the banners of Scythian, Saka, Wusun, and the Yuezhi. However, 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. Starting in 2008, Dr. Spengler joined the Talgar Archaeological Project, directed by Claudia Chang of Sweetbriar College, to look at archaeobotanical remains from archaeological sites dating to the second half of the first millennium B.C. on the Talgar alluvial fan in southeastern Kazakhstan. The archaeological sites on the Talgar alluvial fan show 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.

Three views of a free-threshing wheat (Triticum aestivum) grain from the late first millennium B.C. settlement of Tuzusai in southern Kazakhstan. Archaeobotanical studies at Tuzusai were led by Robert Spengler and excavations were directed by Claudia Chang.

As archaeologist focus more on domestic contexts of the Central Asian Iron Age, the traditional image of the Scythian nomad seems to be fading away. Instead it looks like agricultural pursuits were intensified in many regions of Central Asia during the end of the first millennium B.C. The “Agricultural Intensification, Exchange, and Complexity in ancient Eurasia” Project follows a Boserupian model and seeks to determine how the intensification in farming strategies and evident grain surplus relate to the increased level of exchange and social complexity seen in the archaeological record. The archaeological record for eastern Central Asia at this time shows a significant increase in archaeological visibility, likely correlating with a population increase, craft specialization and the development of an elite class. In addition, the increased interconnectivity across Eurasia that marked the onset of the Silk Road likely brought with it new technology and ideas. In this sense, greater investment in irrigation and diversification of the crop repertoire in Central Asia led to greater specialization in craft, the formation of an elite class and demographic shifts.  

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 other areas. However, of the first millennium B.C. archaeological sites in eastern Central Asia where flotation and archaeobotanical investigation has been implemented, it is clear that cereals were part of the economy and people were investing significant amounts of time into farming.

Traditional Naxi farm in a clearing in the bamboo thickets in the mountains of northern Yunnan, China, photo taken by Spengler in 2011.

Related Publications

Spengler, R. N., III. 2019 Fruit of the Sands: Silk Road Origins of the Food We Eat. Oakland, CA: University of California Press: Berkeley.

Spengler, R. N. III. 2019 Fruits of the Silk Roads, In: Whitefield, S. (Ed.). Silk Roads: Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes. Thames and Hudson: London.

Ren, M., Tang, Z., Wu, X., Spengler, R. N., III, Jiang, H., Yang, Y., Boivin, N. 2019 The Origins of Cannabis Smoking: Chemical Residue Evidence From the First Millennium BCE in the Pamirs. Science Advances. 5(6): eaaw1391.

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, 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.

Spengler, R. N., III, Miller, N. F., Neef, R., Tourtellotte, P. A., Chang C. 2017 Linking Agriculture and Exchange to Social Developments of the Central Asian Iron Age. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. 48:295-308.

Miller, N. F., Spengler, R. N., & Frachetti, M. 2016 Millet Cultivation across Eurasia: Origins, Spread, and the Influence of Seasonal Climate. The Holocene. 26:1566-1575.

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, Chang, C., & Tourtellotte, P. A. 2013 Agricultural Production in the Central Asian Mountains: Tuzusai, Kazakhstan (410-150 BC). Journal of Field Archaeology. 38(1):68–85.

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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