Posts Tagged ‘Asia’


Excavations at the medieval site of Tashbulak are co-directed by Michael Frachetti and Farhad Maksudov; research at the site is ongoing. Credit: Robert Spengler


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Studies of ancient preserved plant remains from a medieval archaeological site in the Pamir Mountains of Uzbekistan have shown that fruits such as apples, peaches, apricots and melons were cultivated in the foothills of Inner Asia. The archaeobotanical study, conducted by Robert Spengler of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, is among the first systematic analyses of medieval agricultural crops in the heart of the ancient Silk Road. Spengler identified a rich assemblage of fruit and nut crops, showing that many of the crops we are all familiar with today were cultivated along the ancient trade routes.

The Silk Road was the largest vector for cultural spread in the ancient world—the routes of exchange and dispersal across Eurasia connected Central Asia to the rest of the world. These exchange routes functioned more like the spokes of a wagon wheel than a long-distance road, placing Central Asia at the heart of the ancient world. However, most historical discussions of the ancient Silk Road focus on the presence of East Asian goods in the Mediterranean or vice versa. The present study, published in PLOS ONE, looks at archaeological sites at the center of the trans-Eurasian exchange routes during the medieval period, when cultural exchange was at its highest. Additionally, scholarship has focused on a select handful of goods that moved along these trade routes, notably silk, metal, glass and pastoral products. However, historical sources and now archaeological data demonstrate that agricultural goods were an important commodity, as well. Notably, higher value goods such as fruits and nuts were distributed along these exchange routes and likely contributed to their popularity in cuisines across Europe, Asia, and North Africa today. Ultimately, this study demonstrates how the Silk Road shaped what foods we all eat today.

Our everyday fruits and nuts have their roots in the Silk Road

Spengler analyzed preserved ancient seeds and plant parts recovered from a medieval archaeological site in the foothills of the Pamir Mountains of eastern Uzbekistan. The site, Tashbulak, is currently under excavation by a collaborative international Uzbek/American project co-directed by Michael Frachetti of Washington University in St. Louis, and Farhod Maksudov of the Institute for Archaeological Research, Academy of Sciences in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The plant remains recovered from this site represent one of the first systematic studies of the crops that people were growing along the Silk Road. In the article, archaeobotanical data are contrasted with historical and other archaeological evidence in order to discuss the timing and routes of spread for the cultivated plants. These plant remains date to roughly a millennium ago and include apple, grape, and melon seeds, peach and apricot pits, and walnut and pistachio shells.

This study demonstrates that there was a rich and diverse economy in Central Asia during this period, including a wide array of cultivated grains, legumes, fruits and nuts. The site of Tashbulak is located at 2100 meters above sea level, above the maximum elevations at which many of these fruit trees can be grown, suggesting that the fruit remains recovered at the site were carried from lower elevations. Historical sources attest to the importance of fresh and dried fruits and nuts as a source of commerce at market bazaars across Inner Asia. These trade routes facilitated the spread of many of our most familiar crops across the ancient world. For example, the earliest clear archaeological evidence for peaches and apricots comes from eastern China, but they were present in the Mediterranean by the Classical period. Likewise, grapes originated somewhere in the broader Mediterranean region, but grape wine was a popular drink in the Tang Dynasty. We can now say that all of these fruit crops were prominent in Central Asia by at least a millennium ago, likely much earlier. Spengler says, “The ecologically rich mountain valleys of Inner Asia fostered the spread of many cultivated plants over the past five millennia and, in doing so, shaped the ingredients in kitchens across Europe and Asia.”

Central Asia is a key homeland and dispersal point for many important arboreal crops, such as apples and pistachios

Spengler also points out that many economically important fruit crops originated in the foothill forests of eastern Central Asia. For example, studies suggest that much of the genetic material for our modern apples comes from the Tien Shan wild apples of southeastern Kazakhstan, and pistachios originated in southern Central Asia. Despite the importance of these arboreal crops in the modern world economy, relatively limited scholarly focus has gone into the study of their origins and dispersal. The data from Tashbulak are an important contribution to that study. The article shows the importance of archaeological research in Central Asia, highlighting its role in the development of cultures across the ancient world.

In his forthcoming book, “Fruit from the Sands,” Spengler traces the spread of domesticated plants across Central Asia. In the book, set to hit shelves in April 2019, he states, “The plants in our kitchens today are archaeological artifacts, and part of the narrative for several of our favorite fruits and nuts starts on the ancient Silk Road.”

Excavations at Tashbulak are ongoing, with support from Washington University in St. Louis, the Max von Berchem Foundation, and the National Geographic Society. Over the next few years, the research team expects that their research will better elucidate the nature of interaction and contact in the mountains of Central Asia. Frachetti notes, “The insights gained from this archaeobotanical study help link the juicy details of ancient cuisine to our modern tables, and in doing so highlights the long-term impact of interactions between diverse communities and regions on a global scale.”





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Religious dogma in the Middle Ages helped create the modern domestic chicken, research suggests.

Scientists found traits such as reduced aggression, faster egg-laying and an ability to live in close proximity to other birds emerged in chickens in about AD 1000.

Chicken evolution might have been strongly influenced by the impact of Christian beliefs on what people ate.

During the Middle Ages, religious edicts enforced fasting and the exclusion of four-legged animals from menus.

However, the consumption of chickens and eggs was permitted during fasts.

Increasing urbanisation might have helped drive the evolution of modern domesticated chickens, the study, published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, said.

“Ancient DNA allows us to observe how genes have changed in the past, but the problem has always been to get high enough time resolution to link genetic evolution to potential causes,” Oxford University lead researcher Dr Liisa Loog said.

“But with enough data and a novel statistical framework, we now have timings that are precise enough to correlate them with ecological and cultural shifts.”

Chickens were domesticated from Asian jungle fowl around 6000 years ago.

But the new study, which combined DNA data from archaeological chicken bones with statistical modelling, showed some of the most important features of the present-day chicken arose in the high Middle Ages during a time of soaring demand for poultry.

They traced the evolutionary history of more than 70 chickens, looking for changes in the THSR gene that determines levels of aggression.

Natural selection favoured chickens with THSR variants that helped them cope with living close to one another, the study found.

THSR variants also led to faster egg laying and a reduced fear of humans.

A thousand years ago, just 40 per cent of the chickens studied had this gene, which is present in all modern domesticated chickens.

“We tend to think that there were wild animals and then there were domestic animals rather than thinking about the selection pressures on domestic plants and animals that varied through time,” Dr Loog said.

“This study shows how easy it is to turn a trait into something that becomes fixed in an animal in an evolutionary blink of an eye.”

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Remnants of ancient crops have provided researchers with clues that could help map the movement of humans across the globe more than 1300 years ago.

The University of Queensland-led international study has uncovered the first direct archaeological evidence that Madagascar was colonised by a Southeast Asian community.

UQ School of Social Science archaeologist Dr Alison Crowther said genetic research had confirmed that the inhabitants of Madagascar shared close ancestry with Southeast Asians, but archaeologists had until now struggled to find evidence of their early presence on the island.

“We have now identified 2443 individual crop remains,” she said.

“The remains were obtained through archaeological excavations at 18 ancient settlement sites in Madagascar, the Comoros and coastal eastern Africa dating back to the 7th to 12th centuries.

“What was amazing to us was the stark contrast that emerged between the crops on the east African coast and offshore islands versus those on Madagascar and the nearby Comoros Islands.

“The more we looked, the starker the contrast became.

“The samples taken from sites on Madagascar and the Comoros contained few or no African crops, but were instead dominated by species such as Asian rice, mung bean and Asian cotton,” she said.

By examining where else in the Indian Ocean these crops were grown, and drawing on historical and linguistic data, the team was able to make a strong case that the crops reached Madagascar from Island Southeast Asia.

Fellow researcher and Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History Director of Archaeology Dr Nicole Boivin said there was still a lot to learn about the island’s past.

“But what is exciting is that we finally have a way of providing a window into the island’s highly mysterious Southeast Asian settlement and distinguishing it from settlement by mainland Africans,” she said.

“This means that archaeologists can use those remains to finally start to provide real material insights into the colonisation process.”

The research team plans to return to Madagascar to continue the work. Dr Crowther said much work remains to be done.

“We are keen to understand who these people were and what impact they had,” she said.

The team’s findings are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Media contacts: Alison Crowther, 0400 636 350, 3365 2757, a.crowther@uq.edu.au

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Topic: Chickens

All chickens descend from south east Asia, new archaeological research has   found, with scientists dubbing these common ancestors the “great, great   grandmothers of the chicken world”.

The team of researchers from the University of New England (Armidale,   Australia) studied the ancient DNA – known as mitochondrial DNA – preserved   within 48 archaeological chicken bones and found the same DNA signature   present in bones from Europe, Thailand, the Pacific, Chile, the Dominican   Republic and Spanish colonial sites in Florida.

Project researcher Dr Alison Storey says chickens have been domesticated for   at least 5400 years and it has been difficult to determine the ancient   origin and dispersal of chickens because of the way successive civilisations   carried the domesticated poultry with them wherever they went.

“What we found is that one of the sequences in the different chicken   bones was very similar over a wide geographic area. This tells us that the   chickens that we found in archaeological sites all over the world shared an   ancient ancestor who was domesticated somewhere in southeast Asia   a long time ago,” Dr Storey told the ABC.

“All of our domestic chickens are descended from a few hens that I like   to think of as the ‘great, great grandmothers’ of the chicken world,”   she says.

The report, published in the journal PLos ONE, has implications for the world   of human movement as much as it does for the DNA of poultry. The report   says: “Understanding when chickens were transported out of   domestication centres and the directions in which they were moved provides   information about prehistoric migration, trade routes, and cross cultural   diffusion.”

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By Anneli Knight, Brisbane, Jul;y 27, 2012

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Topic: Ancient Hunters in East Asia

Cut marks on the rib of a large-sized herbivore

More than ten thousands of bone fragments were recovered from the Lingjing site, Henan Province during 2005 and 2006. By taking statistical analyses of the skeletal elements of the two predominant species in this assemblage, aurochs (Bos primigenius) and horse (Equus caballus), scientists from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP), Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, found that hominids at this site have already practiced sophisticated hunting techniques and subsistence strategies and may be quite familiar with the ecological and anatomical characteristics and nutritional values of the large-sized prey animals and can accordingly take different processing and handling strategies at the hunting site, as reported in the journal of Science China Earth Sciences, 2012, 55 (2).

The Lingjing site is located in the west part of Lingjing town, about 15 km to the northwest of the Xuchang City, Henan Province and stands at an elevation point of 117 m. Initially discovered in the middle of the 20th century, this site was re-excavated by researchers from the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology during 2005 to 2006. Within an area of about 300 m2, the Lingjing site yielded nearly 20 fragments of human fossils, 10 thousands of stone artifacts and more than 10000 pieces of animal fossils. Within the Chinese Paleolithic cultural system, it is of the transitional status between the Early and Later Paleolithic Age. Animal fossils in statistics are primarily from the stratum bearing the hominid fossils – the “Lower Cultural Layer”.

Researchers assessed the differential influences and weights of a variety of taphonomic agencies in the formation of the assemblage, and found hominid hunting and the subsequent disarticulation, slaughtering, and their transport of the bone elements of the prey species are the main factors accounting for the formation of the present assemblage.

After observing the distributional patterns of cut marks on the long bones of animals from the site, researchers found that most cut marks were on the midshaft portions of the bone (185 pieces, 98.45%), whereas only two pieces of distal epiphysis and one piece of proximal epiphysis (1.06% and 0.53%) were cut-marked. And of all the cut-marked long bones, 34% and 41% specimens belong to the upper and middle limbs of herbivores respectively, whereas only 25% belong to the lower limbs. This data suggests that hominids at the Lingjing site first accessed the animal resources prior to the carnivores and cut off the meat on the long bones.

Mortality patterns for two dominant species of the Lingjing site indicate that both animals have the mortality profiles of prime-adults dominated and accompanied by a small proportion of juvenile individuals, implying that hominids there already had relatively mature and systematical living strategies and social organizations in this period.

The distributions of the long bone circumferences and bone lengths could partially reflect the differential modifications of the hominids and carnivores on archaeofauna. The long bone circumferences of most specimens of the Lingjing assemblage is less than 25%, which is identical to that of hominid sites, but much different from that of the carnivore lairs. The lengths of 1300 pieces of long bones measured, are mostly distributed in the area of 3–6 or 6–9 cm, clearly displaying hominids’ influences on the archaeofauna at the Lingjing site.

There is a big difference between the skeletal element profiles of aurochs and horse in the Lingjing assemblage. There are relatively more fragments of horse’s skulls and mandibles, but its long bones are almost absent from the site. Perhaps, just as modern humans did, hominids always preferred to transport all the skeletal parts of the horses back to their base-camps whereas they dropped most of the bones of the aurochs in the killing sites. As compared to the artiodactyls, skeletal elements of the equids have relatively stronger muscle attachment points, and even after a more detailed field processing (such as defleshings, etc.) there will still be a large amount of nutritional components attached to the bone surfaces. If hominids dropped the bones in the field, it will inevitably have resulted in the loss of much nutrients. Furthermore, the marrow cavities within the long bones of equids are significantly smaller and its marrow content is mainly inside the spongy parts of the bones, which cannot be efficiently utilized by ancient humans.

The taphonomic study of the Lingjing site shows that this fauna is not a consequence of a large-scale hunting activity, instead it is just a final synthesis of several episodes of small-scale hunting events. For homonids with limited resources, perhaps the most sensible choice is to move those skeletal elements which still have much nutritional contents adhered, back to the base-camp, where they not only have enough time, but also have technology and capacity to extract nutrition thoroughly from those bones.

“The study of skeletal element profiles is an essential tool to reconstruct hominid behaviors, their social activities or the functions of archaeological sites”, said study lead author Dr. ZHANG Shuangquan of the IVPP, “This study initiatively identifies hominid’s differential treatment of the bones of aurochs and horse in the Paleolithic record of East Asia”.

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A selection of prehistoric stone tools.

Image via Wikipedia

Topic: Hunting culture

A team led by Professor Raj Somadeva has recently made finds supporting the theory that Sri Lankan Culture is not borrowed from any other country or region, as has long been supposed.      The expedition is excavating a site near Haldummulla town, 835 metres above sea level on the Southern Platform of central hills – the oldest recognisable human settlement in Sri Lanka at a significant altitude.

According to Somadeva, considerable evidence of a well organised prehistoric hunting culture and civilisation were earlier found in minor excavations and caves.

Somadeva says this represents the transition from hunting to agriculture around 3000 years ago. The stone tools and graves uncovered in Ranchamadama and Haldummulla represent more or less the same period, yet the fragments of pottery and stone tools and other archaeological evidence discovered in Ranchamadama in 2009 prove that Sri Lankan prehistoric man migrated from higher Haldummulla to lower Ranchamadama later.

As Somadeva points out, the Horton Plains which the prehistoric Sri Lankan people are believed to have inhabited is a further 600 metres above Haldummulla, itself a mountainous region. People living in the hills gradually migrated to lower plains around 5000 BCE, probably owing to the widespread drought which hit the highlands during that time. In their journey to the lower regions of the island, the people found some special stones with a high concentration of iron, trapped in the precipices, and it is these stones that have been found deposited in the graves.

In 2010 the team excavated graves on the way to Tamil Mahavidyalaya of Haldummulla – the highest elevation thus far. There they unearthed three large funeral vessels of clay resembling boats, each the size of a human body and containing burnt earth, as well as fragments of pots made with the potter’s wheel and filled with funeral ashes, and tools made of the special iron-rich stones. Remains of human habitation adjacent to the graves included tools and pottery similar to that found in the graves.      The practising of funeral rites and the employment of potter’s wheel were the distinctive marks of the primitive agricultural society. The remains uncovered in Haldummulla signals prehistoric man’s transition from hunting to agriculture, however excavations are still at a experimental stage.

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Nov, 2011

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