Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat
by Robert N. Spengler III
You have heard of Marco Polo and the mythical Scythian warrior nomads of the Eurasian steppe, and you are likely aware of stories of ancient Central Asian empires, lost in the desert sands. The prehistory of the western half of the Asian continent is so deeply intertwined with fictional stories that few people in Europe or East Asia know the true history of the peoples that occupied this region in the past. While these peoples have been overlooked by history, they left a profound impact on the modern world and the legacy of Central Asia’s past is seen all around us today. Exploring this legacy, Dr. Spengler focuses on how the ancient exchange routes through Central Asia directly shaped the foods that you eat today and the ingredients in your kitchen.
Fruit from the Sands has received acclaimed praise from both academic and popular sources (including the Gourmand International Award for culinary writing), and it has been reviewed by an impressive list of journals and magazines:
Praise from Academics
“A delightful raconteur and astute field archeobotanist, Spengler relates this history in a personalized manner, as if he is conversing with the reader. His command of both botany and linguistics gives readers a front-row seat to historic discoveries about culinary traditions that will dramatically alter the way they think about populations living thousands of miles apart.” –Gary Paul Nabhan, University of Arizona Professor, Ethnobotanist, founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH, and author:
“Few scholars would have the chutzpah to write such a bold book. Robert Spengler presents an exemplary case of work that is not only rigorous but broadly accessible and truly interdisciplinary in scope. Fruit from the Sands reveals that the large-scale biological exchange epitomized by the Columbian Exchange had an ancient precursor, one previously unappreciated but equally crucial for the human diet. This book will change the way that readers see their food.”—Miranda Brown, Professor of Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Michigan
“To an archaeobotanist, the food on your table encodes the very history of humankind. From a single seed, Robert Spengler unfurls the millennial story of human and biological exchanges with exciting precision. This book is for mindful eaters and hungry thinkers alike.”—James A. Millward, Professor of Intersocietal History at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University
“Spengler takes the reader on a kaleidoscopic and dazzling journey: from the rice paddies of southern China, the stands of melon vendors at the bazaars in Samarkand, and the archaeological excavations in remote mountain regions of present-day Kazakhstan to the reader’s own kitchen table. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in Silk Road exchanges.”—Sören Stark, Associate Professor of Central Asian Archaeology, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World/NYU
“Spengler tells a fascinating tale of a culinary past that is just beginning to come into focus. Perhaps a follow-up volume could delve into what life was like for traders and herders on the Silk Road. For now, though, Spengler’s book provides lots of food for thought.” –Bruce Bower, Journalist and popular science writer
“Fruits from the Sands is an excellent example of a comprehensive and entertaining historical and botanical review, providing an enjoyable and cognitive read for scientists, general public, students and policy makers. The people of ancient Central Asia are honoured as the main protagonists, dispersing cultivars and agricultural knowledge along trans-Eurasian exchange routes. This fresh view can be credited to the author.” –Mayke Wagner and Pavel E. Tarasov, Professors in the Eurasia Department, German Archaeological Institute, and the Department of Earth Sciences, Freie Universität Berlin, respectively
“Fruit from the Sands is an entertaining and thought provoking historical, botanical and archaeological review of a vast swathe of the Old World. It is accessible for specialists and the general public alike, and should be read by policy makers as well, with a mind to thinking about agricultural diversity and sustainability.” –Jennifer Bates, Professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, and accredited archaeobotanist working in South Asia
“Much has been written about the Columbian Exchange and the introduction of ‘exotic’ foodstuffs from the West to the rest of the world that resulted from opening up of the Americas at the end of the 15th century – and rightly so. But in Europe we are generally much more poorly aware of the influence on our cuisines of foodstuffs from the East. In Fruits from the sands, Robert Spengler redresses that imbalance so that the food debt the West owes the East is rightly showcased, and celebrated. Should anybody require a single sentence, sound-bite summary of the book, I offer this: “Fruits from the sands, where food meets forensics”.” –Nigel Chaffey, botanist and professor at Bath Spa University, he is also the editor of the Annals of Botany
The popular science magazine, Science News, declared that Fruit from the Sands is one of their choices for Favorite Science Book of 2019. This coveted title only goes to a select handful of the most prestigious science books published in a given year. In this regard, Dr. Spengler has succeeded in elevating the archaeology of the food on your table to the same level in the popular science world as human evolution, astrophysics, and agronomics.
Many people think of the great Silk Road as a mirage in the shifting sands of time; however, the ideas and goods that once moved across Eurasia directed the course of human history. Merchant caravans, passing through the mountain valleys and desert oases of Central Asia, directly shaped aspects of culinary traditions across the Old World. Recent archaeological findings have shown that as far back as the third millennium B.C., domesticated crops were diffusing across two continents. This process of ancient globalization led to a diversification of culinary traditions in Asia, Europe, and North Africa. In this book, Dr. Spengler presents first-hand research conducted at over a dozen archaeological sites spread out from Mongolia to Pakistan. He shows that, over the past two millennia, the trade routes of the Silk Road brought almonds, apples, apricots, peaches, pistachios, rice, and a wide variety of other foods to European kitchens. In Fruit from the Sands, Dr. Spengler brings together scholarly sources from across the biological and social sciences, pulling on information from archaeology, biology, Classics, Sinology, ethnohistory, and history. He presents the fascinating story of the origins and spread of agriculture across Inner Asia and into Europe and explores the spread of domesticated plants along the historical Silk Road.
In following camel caravans across the desert sands of the Kara Kum, Taklimakan, and Gobi, this book lays out numerous untold stories relating to humanity’s greatest accomplishment: the domestication and spread of the food we eat today. This book represents a story pieced together while working in laboratories in Europe and America and digging through the sediments of the past in Asia. Dr. Spengler spent over a decade compiling these chapters and built the story in collaboration with scholars from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, as well as many European, East Asian, and American colleagues. The book also draws on a deep and rich Soviet scientific legacy of scholarship. Spengler’s years of experience working in Central Asia have helped him gain access to archives, archaeological sites, and comparative collections that are not accessible to most people. Fruit from the Sands represents the culmination of all of this research and presents a significant contribution to both history and science, it lays out many new discoveries that have not been synthesized outside of academic journals.