How the Silk Road Shaped your Dinner Table
For ten thousand year farmers have entered into an indissolvable covenant with a select handful of plants and animals, whereas people agree to protect, maintain, and spread those accommodating species in return for food, clothing, protection, nourishment, entertainment, healing, and labor. The story of humanity’s relationship with its closest companions is the subject of ongoing investigation by biologists, historians, archaeologists, and social scientists. One of the most fascinating chapters in this story is that of the Silk Road. The role that the Silk Road played in the coevolutionary tale of humanity and its domesticated companions has never been told in full, due mostly to a scientific lack of understanding. Over the past few years, due to significant discoveries in the fields of archaeology and biology – notably in the areas of phytogenetics and archaeobotany – this long-buried history has been recovered, and I unfold the narrative in my book Fruits from the Sands. This book follows a select handful of plants on their historical journey along exchange routes through Central Asia, ultimately shaping the course of human history and changing cuisines all over the globe. My research strives to tell the long tale of how the food on your kitchen table made its way there.
The great Silk Road was the largest commerce network of the ancient world; it linked the disparate ends of the vast Eurasian supercontinent and, in doing so, connected the imperial centers of East and southwest Asia. While organized trade, including military outposts and government taxation, along the Silk Road dates to the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220), the exchange of goods, ideas, cultural practice, and genes, through the thousands of kilometers of expansive deserts and mountainous terrain, has been archaeologically traced back to the third millennium B.C. (Spengler et al. 2014). In the following chapters, the earlier iteration of the Silk Road is treated as a precursor to the historical routes, and I give it equal prominence throughout this volume. Over the past two millennia, the power struggle along the Silk Road has passed control back and forth between various nationalities and ethnic groups, including successive Chinese dynasties and Central Asian mobile peoples, such as the Xianbei and Xiongnu. This ebb and flow of cultures directly shaped the trajectory of human history in myriad ways, including through the spread of agricultural practices and crop varieties. Therefore, by following the spread of specific crop varieties along the Silk Road, we will explore the development of cuisines around the world. Archaeobotanically tracing the path that plants followed on their long journey across Central Asia, provides us with a roadmap of the early routes these foods took to ultimately reach our dinner plates today.
In 2001, Michael Pollan made the narrative of the apple (Malus domestica) a mainstream topic; people all over the world read about how this innocuous fruit made its way into all of our kitchens, and, as Pollan proclaimed, helped settle the American frontier. Few people, prior, would have stopped to inquire as to how these rosy orbs made their way onto our tables or from where they first originated. Naturalized forms of the forbidden fruit have become such an omnipresent fixture on the Euro-American rural landscape, along roads and in abandoned orchards, that it comes as a shock to many readers to learn that the roots of the apple tree reach back to Central Asia, and have genetic linkages to truly wild populations outside the former capital of Kazakhstan. However, your grandmother’s apple pie is not the only food on your kitchen table to trace its roots back to Central Asia, nor is it the only one to travel along the great Silk Road. Pistachios (Pistacia vera) originated in the foothills of the southern Central Asian mountains, almonds (Prunus dulcis) and English walnuts (Juglans regia) trace their lineages back to the foothills spanning the broader region of southern Eurasia. Central Eurasia has been the crossroads of empires for millennia, and in so being, is the backdrop for the narratives of many of foods on our tables today, as these treats were carried along their eastward or westward journeys.
The Silk Road has become an almost mythical component of our collective human past. While it is true that, at one point in time, the Silk Road brought silken textiles from Chang’an (Xian), the dynastic Chinese capital, on camel-back to the Classical world, this was only the tip of the iceberg. The true history of the Eurasian trade routes is far more complicated, fascinating, and far-flung – stretching deep into prehistory and spanning much of the globe. The Silk Road is an historically documented reality (although, possibly not how you envision it) that directly shaped the trajectory of human history by spreading a wide variety of raw materials, produced crafts and goods, technologies and innovations, cultural concepts and practices, and genes – both human and those of our domesticated companions. The spread of agricultural crop varieties and growing techniques is just one way in which the exchange of commodities along these routes reshaped human practice across the Old World, albeit a highly significant one. It is hard to imagine Chinese cuisine without lomein, dumplings, or steamed buns; however, bread wheats (Triticum aestivum) originated nearly 7,000 kilometers away from the dynastic centers of the former Chinese Empire. Likewise, broomcorn millet porridge and unleavened millet breads were culturally significant foods across the Classical Mediterranean and western European realm by two millennia ago, playing a powerful role in driving productive economies, especially along the rocky, over-grazed, and nutrient-depleted soils of the Mediterranean by the peak of the imperial phase of the Roman Empire. The East Asian millets, however, originated on the opposite end of a different continent, passing across some of the highest most inhospitable mountain elevations on Earth along their journey to Europe. Furthermore, it is impossible to imagine Silk Road caravan merchants, be they Tocharian, Sogdian, Uighur, or Achaemenid, without goat-skin sacks of wine dangling from their Bactrian camels, yet, grapes (Vitis vinifera) are not native to Central Asia. Viticulture became established in the oasis outposts along the Silk Road by the mid-first millennium B.C., as evidenced by finds of pips at the site of a small village in southeastern Kazakhstan, referred to as Tuzusai (Spengler et al. 2013).
Through the chapters that follow, I hope to trace out a seven thousand kilometer journey that men have been embarking upon for millennia. Tracking the footsteps of Marco Polo, Vavilov, Aurel Stein, Nikolay Przhevalsky, Alexander von Humboldt, Qingis Khan, and hundreds of thousands of merchants and herders, who carried with them the genetic coding for a new generation of plants and animals. These traders and shepherds provided an ideal dispersal mechanism for the crops that would ultimately dominate the planet. Like bees across the sands, these mobile peoples spread the germplasm for the plants and animals that would ultimately feed the blossoming empires of Europe and Asia. Not until the colonial expansion of Europe would humanity be so responsible for the diffusion of organisms and the far flung dispersal of genes as they were on the routes of the Silk and Spice Roads. The seeds they carried were kept warm through harsh winters at high elevation and irrigated in some of the driest sands of Asia. Through their thirst for knowledge and desire to adapt to some of the most rugged landscapes on the globe, prehistoric Central Asian herders spread the allele for a highly compact morphotype of wheat (Triticum sp.), they experimented with drought-tolerant millets from East Asia, and brought the first peach (Prunus persica) tree to southwest Asia. Peaches, which originated along the marshes of the Yangtze River valley in Zhejiang, China, ultimately made their way to Europe by the Hellenistic period. As ambrosia was in Hellenistic and Classical mythology, the peach was a symbol of immortality in Daoist dogma, and the nectarous flesh of the peach was immortalized in ink as early as the first millennium B.C. in the Shijing (the Book of Odes; ca. 1000 – 500 B.C.).
The peach is not the only fruit in today’s Euro-American cornucopia to have once followed the great Silk Road. In a rawhide sack tucked into the ropes of a heavily laden horse, a short tendriling vine traversed the dry deserts, protected from the hot sun by its porter. According to the Han dynastic historian, Qian Sima, this porter was the military general, Qian Zhang, returning from one of his campaigns, either in 138 B.C. or 119 B.C., commissioned by the legendary Han Emperor, Wudi, to seek a political alliance with the people of Central Asia against the Xiongnu, a people living to the north of the Chinese Empire. The great historian’s ancient scrolls specifically claim that grapes came to China from the country of Dawan, which most historians agree to be the modern Ferghana Valley of Uzbekistan. While the tale of the discovery of the Vitis vine and its sweet intoxicating libation by the Han Empire was quilled into the Shiji (The Book of the Great Historian) over two millennia ago (Qian 1961 [ca. 80 B.C.]), a recently exhumed grave from the Yanghai cemetery in, Xinjiang, suggests that wine was revered in the oases of the Taklimakan Desert hundreds of years earlier.
Understanding how the food on our dining room table and in our pantries made it there, not only provides a closer connection to what we choose to eat, it bridges a gap deep into our ancestral past, linking us to the farmers who planted seeds and selected for hardier, sweeter, faster-growing, or larger fruits. Roughly 500 generations of people, for over 10,000 summer planting seasons, stretching back to the Fertile Crescent, have sown seeds, nurtured seedlings, and made decisions about when to plant and what seed lines to save for the following year, all the while passing this accumulated knowledge and the phenotypically improved crop varieties down to their children. In this book, I will present archaeobotanical and historical data that map out the origins and spread of agriculture across Central Asia; however, the ultimate archaeological artifact, testifying to the innovation of farmers in the past, is the food on your dinner table today. When you look at an apple pie, a peach cobbler, or a glass of wine, remember that it is an archaeological artifact, containing in its genes a narrative spanning deep into the past. Scholars around the world are striving to read that narrative and in doing so studying the coevolutionary process that our predecessors and our apples’ ancestors embarked upon, starting in a mountain valley in the Semirech’ye region of southeastern Kazakhstan. The plant narratives presented in this book tell the story of how a select handful of plants manipulated humanity into spreading their genes and creating an ecological niche that was better suited for their survival.