Paleoethnobotany in Central Eurasia

Origins of Agriculture Debate

In 1926, Nicholai Ivanovich Vavilov published his seminal treaties on the Centers of Origin of Cultivated Plants after spending 18 years traveling around Europe, Asia, and the Americas, commissioned by the USSR to study the origins of agriculture. Less than two years later, in 1928, V. Gordon Childe published The Most Ancient Near East, the first in-depth study of the oldest region of agricultural origin, in which he also proposed his Oasis Theory or Propinquity Model. By 1935, Childe had already coined the term “Neolithic Revolution”. The early work of these two scholars sparked nearly a century of debate by researchers from around the world, mapping out the origins and dissemination of agriculture. As attested by two special edition volumes of Current Anthropology published in the Octobers of 2009 and 2011, both devoted to where we as a community of scientists have come in this debate; it is clear that we have filled in much of the global map of the beginnings and spread of farming. As we approach the centennial year (2016) of Vavilov embarking upon a circum-global trek to find the original pioneers of plant cultivation, one massive hole remains in the map of agricultural spread.

This vast area, Central Eurasia, spanning from western China and Mongolia to Eastern Europe, has been referred to by some scholars in the field as the ‘Central Asian void’.

Even more interestingly, this terra incognita saw the rise and fall of many of the Old World’s greatest empires and linked the desperate corners of the world through Silk Road caravans. Despite the fact that Central Eurasian peoples directed the trajectories of human history for millennia, and regardless to the fact that Vavilov, himself, noted the importance of eastern Kazakhstan for crop origins on his trip through the region, this massive part of the world has received little attention from the archaeobotanists until the past few years.

Pumpelly Expedition

Raphael Pumpelly

The fact that Central Eurasia has passed, largely, under the radar of biologists and archaeologists studying early farming is even more intriguing when we take into account a little known historical fact – archaeobotany, and many aspects of modern archaeology, including stratified excavation were pioneered in Turkmenistan decades before Vavilov arrived. In 1904, when Childe was 12 years old and Vavilov was only 7, Raphael Pumpelly led an expedition into the sand dunes of the Kara Kum Desert to study the remains of an ancient city in the black sands, Anau. Pumpelly was a geologist from Oswego, New York, who, in many ways, introduced stratified digging systems and dry sieving to archaeology. He also had the foresight to employ faunal and floral experts to study the modern and ancient biota of Turkmenistan. His project botanist conducted a detailed study of carbonized wheat grains from Anau, nearly half a century before macrobotanical methods would be developed in Europe and America. Interestingly, Pumpelly also proposed a model for agricultural origins that closely parallels the one Childe would make famous 24 years later. It has been accepted, since Raphael Pumpelly’s expedition in 1904 (published in 1908), that agriculture in southern Central Asia dated back to the Neolithic.

Archaeobotany in Central Asia

The lack of archaeobotanical investigation in this region is, in part, a reflection of the overall dearth of archaeological research. While Soviet scientists made great strides during the 70s and 80s, the Soviet Union focused its academic resources closer to Russia proper and political turmoil after the collapse in 1991 made additional work difficult. However, despite this overall lack of investigation in the Soviet peripheries, other fields of archaeological study, such as zooarchaeology, overshadowed botanical research.

The fact that most scholars have approached the archaeological record in this part of the world with a preconceived concept of mounted horse-bound warrior nomads has likely shaped the direction of research projects – why look for agriculture if you already accept that it did not exist?

This is not to say that all scholars were focused on a pastoralist-centric model. Soviet and post-Soviet research on archaeological agriculture was conducted, but almost exclusively centered on identifying agricultural tools (reaping tools such as sickles and hoes or grinding tools), the identification of ancient irrigation canals, or grain imprints on ceramics. These are important lines of data; however, there are, of course, a number of issues with the use of these data alone.

During the early and mid-1990s, flotation techniques were first introduced to Central Eurasia. Much of this early work focused on sedentary agricultural village sites in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages of southern Turkmenistan – the area Pumpelly was so interested in, in fact follow-up work by Hiebert and his colleagues at Anau has illustrated the importance of that site in understanding the earliest crops in the region. Although, the dawn of Central Asian civilization, took place millennia before Anau was founded. The role of agriculture in these Neolithic economies, Jeitun culture, has been explored by David Harris and others. Work at Gonur depe, Turkmenistan, and Jarkutan, Uzbekistan by Naomi Miller has further illustrated the importance of early agriculture in the development of Central Asian culture and civilization. In addition, investigation by George Willcox in 1991 at Sarazm, Tajikistan, illustrated the extent of these agropastoral economies.  In the mid-1990s, Claudia Chang, in collaboration with a number of archaeobotanists, explored a series of Iron Age settlements on the Talgar alluvial fan, showing that agriculture was not only present in northern Central Asia, but it also intensified during the Iron Age.

Hiebert lecturing on top of the Anau South tell during a conference in Turkmenistan in November of 2014

Hiebert lecturing on top of the Anau South tell during a conference in Turkmenistan in November of 2014

The new wave of scientific investigation sweeping across Central Eurasia in recent years is evident in the rapidly growing number of archaeobotanical investigations being published. The research being conducted by myself and my colleagues came to a culmination in March of 2015 at the German Archaeological Institute when I, in collaboration with Mayke Wagner and Pavel Tarasov, organized a conference, on the Introduction and Intensification of Agriculture in Central Eurasia. The Volkswagen Foundation and Wenner Grenn, jointly sponsored the conference, which consisted of 28 specialists, interested in early farming in Central Eurasia, originating from eight different countries, and over two dozen research institutes. This conference has proven to be a jumping board for collaboration and has put Central Eurasia on the map of agricultural spread.

For further description of early archaeobotany in Central Eurasia, see:
A New Research Frontier for an Old Method: Introducing Archaeobotany to Central Asia (Spengler 2014).