Talgar, Kazakhstan

Talgar Archaeological Project

An Overview

Claudia Chang and her colleagues started working in eastern Kazakhstan on the Talgar alluvial fan in 1994, three years after the Soviet Union collapsed. She recognized early in her work that agriculture was important in the economy of the former occupants of the Talgar region, despite reading numerous published sources that argued for specialized pastoralism in this region during the time period she was interested in – the first millennium B.C. The Talgar Archaeological Project has incorporated several paleoethnobotanist, interested in both micro- and macrobotanical approaches over the years. Naomi Miller joined the team in 1994 and Arlene Rosen conducted some of the first phytolith research in Central Asia during 1995 and 1997 (Rosen et al. 2000). I conducted macrobotanical analyses on material from 2008, 2009, and 2010, culminating in a synthetic published account of the importance of agriculture, noting the array of crop varieties (Spengler et al. 2013).


The settlement site of Tuzusai (410 – 150 cal B.C.) is located on the Talgar alluvial fan, in the Tien Shan Mountains of southeastern Kazakhstan, about 15 km east of the former Kazakh capital of Almaty. Today this rich alluvial fan fosters irrigated agriculture. Excavations at Tuzusai, Taldy Bulak 2, Tseganka 8, and Tseganka 4, all on the Talgar alluvial fan were conducted by Chang and her colleagues (2002) as part of the International Kazakh-American Talgar Archaeological Project (Chang et al. 2003; Rosen et al. 2000). Survey work by Chang and Perry Tourtellotte has identified as many as 80 archaeological sites across the fan, mostly dating to the first millennium B.C. These settlements were occupied during the Iron Age by people in the Saka (800 – 200 B.C.) and Wusun culture groups (200 B.C. – A.D. 500).

TAP Fig. 3

View of the 2008 and 2009 excavation units at Tuzusai

Despite the obvious importance of pastoralism in the economy, evidenced in zooarchaeological data, the Talgar sites seem to show a more sedentary form of land use than scholars were suggesting for this part of the world in the Iron Age. Benecke’s analysis argues for year-round occupation, specifically based on herd composition and structure. Benecke examined the 4,000 animal bones collected from the 1994 – 1997 field seasons (Benecke 1999 unpublished report discussed in Chang et al. 2002), finding that sheep and goat (ovicaprid) were the most abundant category (53 percent of the total assemblage), followed by cattle (28 percent), and then horse (15 percent). There were also less prevalent findings of camel (Camelus sp.), dog (Canis lupus ssp. familiaris), and ass (Equus africanus ssp. asinus) (Chang et al. 2002). Hunting may have been part of the economy, but it is not well represented in the Tuzusai assemblage, with the exception of pig (Sus sp., which may or may not have been maintained by this time period) and fox (Vulpes sp.) remains (Chang et al. 2002).

The most notable feature of the site is the immense quantity of mud brick architecture. Numerous overlapping storage pits and larger semi-subterranean pit houses also characterize the site. Tuzusai consists of nearly a meter of sediment accumulation, and AMS dates show it to represent only ca. 200 years of occupation. This rapid sedimentation is due to successive mud brick rebuilding events and year round deposition of cultural fill. This level of rapid cultural sedimentation is similar to ‘tell’ sites further south in Central Asia. Tuzusai is similar to two other sites excavated on the Talgar fan, Taldy Bulak 2, and Tseganka 8 (Chang et al. 2002). Survey work also suggests that there may have been scatterings of small village or hamlet settlements across the alluvial fan during the Iron Age.

TAP Fig. 2

Two views of a grape pip from Tuzusai, figure first published in Spengler et al. (2013)

Archaeobotanical Studies

I conducted a systematic analysis of macrobotanical remains from Tuzusai during 2008-2010, floating 25 sediment samples, which averaged in size around 8 L and ranged from 2 to 16 L of soil. I processed a total of 213 L of sediment and identified a range of domesticated crops Spengler et al. (2013). From the 25 samples a total of 3,163 carbonized seeds (excluding uncarbonized and unidentifiable seed fragments) were recovered, of which 2,314 (73.1%) were domesticated grains/seeds and 849 (26.9%) represent seeds from small herbaceous wild plants. Seven domesticated crops were identified at Tuzusai, with a total density of 10.2 domesticated seeds per liter of soil. A total of 880 cerealia and 157 undifferentiated millet grains were also recovered. The domesticated crops included: hulled barley (likely all six-rowed [Hordeum vulgare var. vulgare]), naked barley (H. vulgare var. nudum), free-threshing compact wheat and free-threshing lax-eared wheat (likely hexaploid [Triticum aestivum/turgidum]), broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum), foxtail millet (Setaria italica), and grape seeds (Vitis vinifera). While there is a range of morphological variation among the free-threshing wheats and many landraces express extreme variation within a single crop harvest, I suggest that there is a wide-enough range to represent two crop varieties or distinct landraces. In addition, hulled and naked varieties of barley are genetically distinct and would have been cultivated separately to maintain their separate phenotypical traits.

TAP Fig. 1

Free-threshing wheat from Tuzusai, three views each of two grains – showing variation in morphology – figure originally published in Spengler et al. (2013)

Over two decades of research on the Talgar alluvial fan by Chang and her colleagues (2002, 2003) has shown a completely anthropogenically constructed landscape by the first millennium B.C., with mud brick architecture and interlocked rooms, large storage pits, and extensive material culture. In addition, survey work has shown that the entire alluvial fan was covered with hamlets or small villages connected by broad expanses of irrigated field systems. Limited evidence for wood in any of the flotation samples, the high abundance of wild herbaceous seeds (likely illustrating dung use as fuel), the lack of foraged nut or fruits, and limited evidence for hunting suggests that the foothill forests of the region were converted to agricultural land by this time period. Recent research has argued that irrigation systems relied on the large glacial-melt and mountain-rain fed streams, which still cut across the alluvial fan today. The adoption of viticulture in the Talgar region, in the second half of the first millennium B.C., further attests to the changing views of land tenure and level of mobility. Grapes are an extreme delayed return crop, providing the first harvest after four years of growth, depending on method of propagation, and vineyards need to be protected and maintained year-round. Tuzusai provides a great case study for understanding human niche construction processes and the development of an anthropogenic landscape.

Chang and Tourtellotte continue to excavate at Tuzusai, and I am still the active project paleoethnobotanist.

References Cited

Chang, Claudia, P. Tourtellotte, K. M. Baipakov, and F. P. Grigoriev
2002 The Evolution of Steppe Communities from Bronze Age through Medieval Periods in Southeastern Kazakhstan (Zhetysu). Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, VA.

Chang, Claudia, Norbert Benecke, Fedor P. Grigoriev, Arlene M. Rosen, and Perry A.
2003 Iron Age Society and Chronology in South-east Kazakhstan. Antiquity 77(296):298-312.

Rosen, A. M., C. Chang, and F. P. Grigoriev
2000 Paleoenvironments and Economy of Iron Age Saka-Wusun Agropastoralists in Southeastern Kazakhstan. Antiquity 74:611-623.

Spengler, R. N., C. Chang, and P. A. Tourtellotte
2013 Agricultural Production in the Central Asian Mountains at the Dawn of the Silk Road: Tuzusai, Kazakhstan (410-150 BC). Journal of Field Archaeology 38(1):68-85.