Director of the ERC-Funded FEDD Project (Fruits of Eurasia: Domestication and Dispersal)
Head of Paleoethnobotany at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Visiting Research Scholar at ISAW (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World)
Volkswagen and Mellon Foundations Postdoctoral Fellow
Dr. Spengler is currently the Paleoethnobotany Lab Director at the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany, Director of the FEDD Project (Fruits of Eurasia: Domestication and Dispersal), funded by the European Research Council, and Co-PI on the Arcadia Fund Project, MAPSS (Mongolian Archaeological Project: Surveying the Steppe). Prior to his time abroad, Dr. Spengler held a Visiting Research Fellowship through the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) at NYU and a Volkswagen Mellon Fellowship.
Dr. Spengler is the author of Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Food We Eat, published with the University of California Press in 2019 and Domestication: Nature’s Greatest Success, currently in peer review with Cambridge University Press. He has authored more than 60 scholarly articles, many in top peer-reviewed journals, and conducted archaeological studies in more than ten countries in his quest to seek out the routes of crop dispersal along the ancient Silk Road.
Fruit from the Sands takes readers on a culinary journey along the ancient trade routes of Eurasia and presents a summary of the spread of farming into Inner Asia before moving forward in time to look at the movement of plants along the ancient Silk Road.
The Silk Road directly shaped cuisines across the world as well as the kinds of food we eat today; in presenting the archaeobotany of Central Asia, Fruit from the Sands follows the history of many of the familiar foods we all take for granted. Indeed, some of the most important artifacts of the ancient Silk Road currently sit on our dinner tables – apples, peaches, apricots, and pistachios all passed through Central Asia as they spread across the ancient world. As Dr. Spengler often states, the next time you eat a piece of apple pie or peach cobbler, consider that you are consuming the legacy of the great Silk Road!
To get a “taste” of this research and the topics covered in the book, enjoy this public lecture presented at ISAW in New York City, and savor these summary articles by Science News and Nature Plants. The publisher’s interview with the author also provides further insight into this ancient land.
Archaeology Magazine declared Dr. Spengler’s research into the origins of the apple one of the Top Ten Archaeological Discoveries of 2019. As part of this research project, Dr. Spengler published a study in Frontiers in Plant Science that not only explores the past few millennia of human-apple interactions but also dives deep into the history of apple-mammalian mutualistic relationships. His work studying the archaeological origins of domesticated plants as diverse as the apple and millet has let him to further consider patterns in the deeper evolutionary legacies of all domesticated plants. Dr. Spengler argues that we must look at the evolutionary processes that lead up to domestication if we wish to understand how plants evolved traits of domestication under early cultivation. In his recent work, he critiques mainstream approaches to the study of plant domestication, using weeds, ancient crop progenitors, and less well-studied crops to develop a better understanding of the way plants evolve under human influence. He steps away from models for crop domestication based on the heavily studies cereals (wheat, barley, and rice) and looks at the process from the perspective of the plant, as opposed to the farmer. In his upcoming book, Domestication: Nature’s Greatest Success, Dr. Spengler argues that the earliest domestication of plants and animals was an unconscious process paralleling evolution in the wild. He disagrees with mainstream claims about the origins of agriculture and the earliest domestication of plants being tied to external factors, such as climate change and population pressure.
Dr. Spengler directs a team of scholars at the Max Planck Institute and collaborates with colleagues working on projects spanning from Japan to Mongolia and Pakistan to Russia. The research questions that he and his team are engaged in are as diverse as what plants spread along the Silk Road in prehistory and how plants evolved in response to human selective pressures. He relies on scholarly methods spanning the archaeobotanical sciences, including macrobotanical studies, pollen, and phytolith analyses. He is also conducting growth experiments on modern plants in order to understand germination and growing constraints. He is interested in questions pertaining to paleoenvironment, cultural exchange, and social orders in the arid and mountainous zones of Central Asia and western China. These questions feed into a broader understanding of human adaptations, social development, and complexity while building a new view of the development of complex societies and the role of agricultural intensification.
I study the adoption of agriculture by people in ecotonal regions of Central Asia, a topic which challenges the long-held view of Central Asia as a pastoralist realm, showing that mobile populations in the Iron and Bronze Ages also engaged in agricultural activities and diversified their economy as an adaptive strategy.
Dr. Spengler’s research spans both anthropogenic environmental change, notably ecosystem engineering and the conversion of forests to pastureland, as well as economic development, notably the adoption of agriculture across Eurasia. Over the past decade, he has directed archaeobotanical analyses in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and China, analyzing material from over 20 archaeological sites. He also heads the FEDD team, a conglomerate of passionate graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, all of whom are working with a strong international network of collaborators. He and his team are helping to fill in the last major gaps in the early archaeobotanical map of Asia, and showing how important the Silk Road was in the spread of specific crops and technologies.
In recent publications, Dr. Spengler has presented a new look at the domestication of plants, akin to that presented by David Rindos, suggesting that plants evolved in response to mutualistic relationships with humans. Summaries of his claims can be read in recent articles published in Trends in Plant Science and Frontiers in Plant Science. Dr. Spengler suggests that plants evolved new traits to recruit humans in order to have them disperse their seeds. Whether plants recruited animals through sweet fleshy fruits (such as apples) or green foliage (such as quinoa), high gene-flow rates and the ability to colonize new territory drove adaptation. Dr. Spengler’s claims regarding the role of megafaunal grazers, such as mammoths and bison, in the evolution of progenitors for millet and quinoa has been further discussed in Nature Plants. Similarly, he writes about the role that megafaunal browsers, such as mastodons and horses, played in the evolution of apples and peaches in Frontiers in Plant Science.
In many cases, the loss of megafaunal dispersers during the late Pleistocene extinctions reduced the rates of gene flow in these plant clades and, in some cases, drove corollary extinctions in obligate plants. Megafaunal-dispersed crop progenitors in many areas of the world today have reduced ranges, are often endangered or extinct. In some cases, megafaunal dispersed plants evolved during the Holocene to recruit new dispersers, a process analogous to domestication. This approach supports discussions of a much deeper time depth for anthropogenic selective pressures, and ties into discussion of the evolution of dispersal traits in primate-dispersed species. Domestication is part of the evolutionary arms race, whereas plants evolved to recruit humans as seed dispersers in response to heavy human herbivory and seed predation. As he often states, “the key to unlocking the greatest mysteries of evolution is the food that we eat every day.” For a deeper discussion of the evolution of the plants and animals that you see and interact with every day, stay tuned for the release of his upcoming book, Domestication: Nature’s Greatest Success.
Dr. Spengler’s long-term research agenda studying the impacts that humans have on the biotic world around them is well-expressed in an article published in the Journal of Ethnobiology. In this manuscript, he points out that based on indicator species of seeds in ancient herd animal dung, humans across Central Asia from the Bronze Age through today have focused their economic pursuits on small-scale microenvironments. Dr. Spengler argues that the key to understanding human occupation in Central Asia is the mosaic nature of the steppe and not its perceived homogeneous expanse of grass. He takes this argument a step further in Human Ecology by pointing out that these ecotopes are constructed and maintained through human herding practices. Through a feedback process of herding, humans have changed the soil chemistry and selected for a distinct vegetation population, which is both nutrient-rich and tolerant to herd browsing. These constructed microenvironments become focal points on an otherwise sparsely populated landscape. Known focal points for group gatherings, which are returned to year after year, drastically change the practical density of human habitation and facilitate social connection and ultimately exchange – leading to an imagined network of interaction connected by fixed nodal points. Dr. Spengler has applied this process of human ecosystem engineering to a regional scale and looked at the massive vegetation shifts that took place across Eurasia in the third through the first millennia B.C. In this sense, his team is studying the early development of an agropastoral niche — the human niche — that has dominated for most of the Holocene.
Dr. Spengler’s main goal through all of these publications is to show that complexity is a facet that involves more than the centers of agricultural origins and that peripheral populations directly shaped social trajectories among ancient empires.