Botanical Resource Use in the Bronze and Iron Age of the Central Eurasian Mountain/Steppe Interface

Spengler, Robert N., III
2013. Botanical Resource Use in the Bronze and Iron Age of the Central Eurasian Mountain/Steppe Interface: Decision Making in Multi-resource Pastoral Economies, Ph.D. Dissertation for the Anthropology Department at Washington University in St. Louis.

Available open access through WUSTL.

Abstract

WUSTLThis dissertation examines botanical resources as components of Central Asian economies in the Bronze: ca. 2500 – 800 B.C.) and Iron Ages: ca. 800 B.C. – A.D. 500) using a paleoethnobotanical data set from four archaeological sites, Begash, Mukri, Tasbas, and Tuzusai. These sites are located in  the Semirech’ye region of eastern Kazakhstan, and they occupy distinctive microenvironmental zones along the mountain and steppe boundaries; furthermore, they show a great deal of material cultural similarity and are placed into the same culture groups by researchers. The introduction of macrobotanical studies to Central Asian archaeology allows for a critique of former models of economy. This dissertation is divided into three economic foci, agriculture, pastoralism, and exchange. First, I look at the role of wild plants as herd forage, specifically focusing on how resource patchiness helped shape social systems and networks. Then, I look at the role agriculture played at different sites and how this role changed over time. Finally, I discuss the role exchange played in the spread of domesticated plants and products such as textiles and grains.

Agriculture

In this dissertation, I demonstrate that domesticated grains: broomcorn millet and compact free-threshing wheat) were present in the economy of the region as far back as the Late Bronze Age: 2200 cal B.C.). However, the role of these domesticates and the means of their acquisition are poorly understood. By the Late Bronze Age at the site of Tasbas: 1400 cal B.C.), full-scale agriculture was being practiced; specifically cultivating semispherical split-apex naked barley, highly-compact free-threshing wheat, broomcorn millet, possibly foxtail millet, and peas.

The Iron Age transition in this region was marked by major social and demographic shifts, starting around 800 B.C. This dissertation helps to provide a direct causal link between these sociopolitical changes and the intensification of agriculture: following a Boserupian model). The inhabitants of sites such as Tuzusai, on the Talgar alluvial fan, shifted their economy more toward agricultural pursuits and away from mobile pastoralism. The incorporation of new agricultural resources, such as new varieties of wheat, hulled barley, and grapes marks this shift, which was also accompanied by possible intensification through irrigation and crop diversification. The shift toward agriculture was not uniform throughout Semirech’ye; at sites such as Begash and Mukri, economies were much more herd animal-based. Occupants of these sites may have cultivated small-scale, low-investment plots of broomcorn and foxtail millet, crops much more adaptive to a mobile pastoral economy.

Pastoralism

The pastorally-focused economy of these areas relied on forage for herd animals located in orographically determined microenvironments: ecotopes). Herd movement and foraging patterns are also discussed in this dissertation based on the seed composition of burnt dung. The wild seeds in the assemblage indicate that herds were grazed in small forage-rich ecological pockets, rather than on the steppe proper. This system of focused herd grazing is still used today. Focusing economic activities on these pockets means that, while overall population was low, it was localized in specific locations. These pockets became nodes in a network of interaction and exchange across the region, providing locations for winter communal encampment and social meeting spots.

Exchange

By the second millennium B.C. an exchange network had formed, connecting populations in South Asia to people in western China through a system of exchange, linked by mountain valleys. Goods such as metal ore, horses, and textiles were exchanged. This corridor of exchange seems to have brought agricultural technology from China southwest into South Asia and southwest Asian crops into China. By the Late Bronze Age a specific package of agricultural crops had formed across the entire mountain corridor. The increased exchange and interaction that marked the Iron Age transition eventually cumulated into the Silk Road, and it brought new crops and technology into Central Asia, ultimately leading to increased social complexity and stratification.

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