Introducing Archaeobotany to Central Asia

A New Research Frontier for an Old Method: Introducing Archaeobotany to Central Asia

Since the early 1920s, starting with Nicholai Ivanovich Vavilov and V. Gordon Childe, a wide range of researchers have studied the origins of agriculture and its spread around the world. Over the past century, most of the chronology of the spread of agriculture has been filled in and mapped out geographically. One of the largest remaining gaps of knowledge on this topic is the area of Central Asia, Mongolia, and western China. This area has been referred to by some researchers in the field as the “Central Asian void.” This void spans a geographic area of almost 4,000 kilometers east/west and covers a temporal span of at least 4,000 years. Europe has benefited from decades of archaeobotanical studies, and sediments from hundreds of archaeological sites have been analyzed. In some cases mega-data sets are used to discuss decades of data accumulation; for example Lister and Jones (2013) use Helmut Kroll’s accumulation of archaeobotanical reports to identify trends in the spread of hulled and naked barley across Europe and southwest Asia. In addition, over the last two decades, the number of archaeobotanical studies in East Asia have increased considerably, especially in eastern China. However, the Central Asian void has mostly perpetuated until the past few years; a growing number of interested researchers are pioneering this realm (e.g., Anthony et al. 2005; Chang et al. 2002; Charles and Bogaard 2010; Frachetti et al. 2010; Jia et al. 2011; Koroluyk and Polosmak 2010; Miller 1999, 2003; Motuzaite-Matuzeviciute et al. 2012; Pashkevich 2003; Popova 2006; Rosen et al. 2000; Ryabogina and Ivanov 2010; Shishlina 2008; Spengler et al. 2013; Wright et al. 2009).

The limited number of studies in this region is even more intriguing when we consider that one of the earliest archaeobotanical analyses in the world was conducted in southern Central Asia. It has been accepted, since Raphael Pumpelly’s expedition in 1904, that agriculture in southern Central Asia dated back to the Neolithic (Pumpelly 1908). While the lack of archaeobotanical methods in this region is evidently due largely to an overall dearth of archaeological investigations after the collapse of the Soviet Union, other methods, such as zooarchaeology, have been more readily incorporated over the past couple decades. Zooarchaeological research has been key to understanding the emergence of Eurasian animal domestication (Benecke 1997; Benecke and Driesch 2003; Outram et al. 2009) and the herd structure employed by early pastoralists (Bendrey 2011; Frachetti and Benecke 2009). Previously, domestic animal remains were used to argue for an analytical link between an idealized concept of pure pastoral nomadism and what was present in the fragmented archaeological record (Shilov 1975). It may be, in part, due to this perception of Central Asia, north of the Kopet Dag foothills, as a pastoral realm that has deterred botanical investigations in archaeological sites.

Until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, few American or western European archaeologists had been able to gain entry into the Soviet states to conduct research (for discussion see: Anthony 1995; Lamberg-Karlovsky 1994). Intensive Soviet archaeological projects focused on two main components of the archaeological record: large medieval agricultural settlements in oasis regions, such as Merv (Nesbitt 1993, 1994); and Bronze and Iron Age burial remains (kurgans) in the steppe zone. Of central concern here, little paleoethnobotanical work was conducted during any of these excavations, and the limited work that was conducted focused on ceramic imprints of grains rather than systematic flotation (some exceptions being Lisitsina 1984 and Pashkevich 1984). Pastoralist steppe settlements were often overlooked or not identified; and thus their economic particulars have been assumed or historically hypothesized, without clear archaeological correlates. However, collaborative research over the past 15 years in the Eurasian steppe reflects new focus on pastoralist settlements and domestic economy. These collaborations provide new opportunities to more comprehensively study Eurasian mobile pastoralists in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and to apply scientific methods—such as paleoethnobotany—toward the reconstruction of complex economies and adaptations at play during the critical transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age.

Soviet and post-Soviet research on archaeological agriculture was almost exclusively centered on identifying agricultural tools (reaping tools such as sickles and hoes or grinding tools) (Berdyev 1968; Korobkova 1981; Lisitsina 1981:352; Okladnikov 1959:419-420; Rudenko’s 1962; further discussion in Di Cosmo 1994) or grain imprints on ceramics (Pashkevich 1984). There are, of course, a number of issues with these data. First, the function of a tool is assumed and a sickle knife could just as easily have been used as a skinning knife. Even more problematic is the use of grinding stones as evidence for agriculture. Grinding stones are found across Central Eurasia and date back to the Neolithic in areas where Neolithic sites are found. A grinding stone could be used to grind wild plants (wild grains or nutrient storage plant parts such as geophytes or nuts) or dyes and pigments, and, indeed, ocher pigment is found in some early steppe burials (Field and Prostov 1938). Despite being problematic clues for early economy alone, these data do comprise wonderful comparative evidence when contrasted with other archaeobotanical methods.

Another early line of evidence used in discussions about cultivated plants in the economic system of prehistoric societies in southern Central Asia was the identification of ancient irrigation canals. Lisitsina (1969, 1981) argues that simple irrigation structures existed in southern Central Asia as far back as the Neolithic or early Aenolithic (Namazga II – IV, mid-fourth millennia B.C.). Further north, in Kazakhstan, Akishev (1969) identified irrigation canals at the site of Aktas 2. It should also be noted that a number of random finds of grains in vessels were recorded in site reports over the several decades of extensive and systematic Soviet excavations. However, these reports are often hard to work with in relation to today’s standards; they were often recorded before radiocarbon dating was commonplace, no photos were taken, and full taxonomic identifications are rare. One example is the finds of wheat and broomcorn millet at the Middle Bronze Age sites of Arkaim and Alandskoe, simply reported as Panicum sp. and Triticum sp. (Gadyuchenko 2002). While these methods may not measure up to today’s standards, it should be noted that most Soviet excavation methods were extremely systematic and ahead of their time; hence, our ability to continually mine these excavation reports for useful data today.

During the early and mid-1990s, flotation techniques were implemented at several village sites spanning the foothills of the Kopet Dag Mountains and oases of the Kara Kum Desert. These seminal studies include Anau South (Harrison 1995), Djeitun (Harris et al. 1993, 1996; Harris and Gosden 1996 [this study focused on the Neolithic]), and Gonur depe (Moore et al. 1994) in Turkmenistan, Djarkutan in Uzbekistan (Miller 1999), and Sarazm in Tajikistan (research conducted by G. Willcox in 1991). Willcox’s work at Sarazm represents the only multidisciplinary international collaborative projects in the Soviet Central Asian states to implement systematic flotation. Excavations at Sarazm started in 1977 and continued in phases through collaborations with the French and American teams (for discussion, see Besenval 2001; Razzokov 2008). In 1990 Willcox visited the site to collect soil samples as part of a series of a joint French and Soviet projects (Besenval 2001; Lyonnet and Isakov 1996). Due in part to the dissolution of the Soviet Union one year after the completion of the study, the report was not published in full until 2013 (Spengler and Willcox 2013).

More extensive studies were conducted further south along the chain of Namazgda Culture village sites. During the 1989 field season at the site of Gonur depe in the Murgab Delta, a collaborative international project, including researchers from the United States as well as Turkmenistan, was led by V. I. Sarianidi. The goal of this project was to “reconstruct the systems of crop and animal production and distribution by examining remains from household and workshop refuse” (Moore et al. 1994). A summary of the botanical analysis conducted by Naomi Miller on this project was published in an article by Moore and her colleagues in 1994. The same year, another collaborative project was conducted at Anau South (Harrison 1995), also with Miller. Both of these projects focused on large scale Bronze Age settlements in the Namazgda V and VI Phases (Gonur also contained early BMAC). These large-scale settlements were sedentary and they invested a considerable amount of their time and energy into agricultural pursuits (Miller 1999; Moore et al. 1994).

Another interesting pioneering project in the study of archaeobotany in Central Asia is that of Claudia Chang and her colleagues. She started working in eastern Kazakhstan three years after the Soviet Union collapsed, and focused attention on the Talgar alluvial fan in 1994. As part of her multidisciplinary approach, she brought Miller on to the team to conduct macrobotanical analyses in 1994 (Miller 1996) and Arlene Rosen on to conduct some of the first phytolith research in Central Asia during 1995 and 1997 (Rosen et al. 2000). Phytolith studies remain a relatively under-utilized methodological approach in Central Asia (except see: Larkum 2010; Beardmore’s research [discussed in Doumani et al. in review]). Claudia also worked with Natalya Ogur at the Institute of Botany in Almaty, Kazakh Academy of Sciences, and her private firm, ENVIRC, on botanical surveys of the region. Research continues at Tuzusai, and a follow-up botanical study has recently been conducted (Spengler et al. 2013).

Nevertheless, research by local specialists did continue through the collapse: academic institutions, such as the Geological Institute in Almaty, or the Institute of Archaeology and the Central State Museum (all in the same city), run a variety of projects and maintain valuable collections. In most cases, if paleobotanists are employed, their focus is on palynology, as seen with Bulat Aubekerov and Saida Nigmatova (Institute of Geology, National Academy of Science, Almaty Kazakhstan). While much of this work aims at environmental reconstruction, some interesting projects have looked at past economies as well; Ryabogina and Ivanov (2010) summarize much of this data for northern Central Asia and southern Russia. Although a few interesting macrobotanical studies have been conducted, e.g. by Serge Bashtannik (2007, 2008) of the Institute of Human Ecology (Siberian Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences).

The increased interest in early economies of Central Asia has brought a wave of new methodological approaches and pushed archaeobotanical analyses into new areas of the steppe. For example, in 2004 Laura Popova conducted one of the first systematic flotation analyses on the central/western steppe proper, as part of a larger excavation project directed by David Anthony at Krasnosamarskoe and neighboring sites (Popova 2006). Projects are currently underway at Sintashta Culture sites in the Urals by Lisa Rühl at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt and Ng Chuen Yan at Pittsburgh University; at Botai Culture sites by Martin Jones, Xinyi Liu, and Giedre Motuzaite-Matuzeviciute from Cambridge University; and also by the author (R. Spengler). I am also running macrobotanical projects in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. In addition, projects are underway across southern Central Asia by Naomi Miller (University of Pennsylvania) and Margareta Tengberg (University of Paris at Sorbonne), as well as their graduate students. The floodgates have been opened and a general reassessment of prehistoric economy (and culture as a whole) is in the works. A realm once considered to be occupied by raiding, mounted, long-distance mobile pastoralists is now clearly an economically and environmentally diverse mosaic of intermingling populations articulating with their environmental settings in deliberate, adaptive ways.

Robert N. Spengler III
Research Associate
Department of Anthropology
Washington University of St. Louis

Image: An SEM of an archaeological grain of broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum) from the site of Tuzusai (410-150 cal B.C.) in southeastern Kazakhstan. Image by author.

References Cited

Akishev, K. A. 1969. Winter Settlement and Dwelling of Ancient Wusun [in Russian]. Izvestia AN Kaz SSR Ser. obshestv 1:39-46.

Anthony, David W., D. Brown, E. Brown, A. Goodman, A. Kokhlov, P. Kosintsev, P. Kuznetsov, O. Mochalov, E. Murphy, D. Peterson, A. Pike-Tay, L. Popova, A. Rosen, N. Russel, and Alison Weisskopf. 2005. The Samara Valley Project: Late Bronze Age Economy and Ritual in the Russian Steppes. Eurasia Antiqua 11:395-417.

Anthony, David.1995. Is there a Future for the Past? An Overview of Archaeology in Western Russia and Ukraine. Journal of Archaeological Research 3(3):177-190.

Bashtannik, S. V. 2007. Medieval Agriculture in Southern Kazakhstan. Kemerovo, Almaty, Kazakstan.

Bashtannik, S. V. 2008. Archaobotanical Studies at Medieval Sites in the Arys River Valley. Archaeology Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia 33(1): 85–92.

Bendrey, Robin. 2011. Some Like it Hot: Environmental Determinism and the Pastoral Economies of the Later Prehistoric Eurasian Steppe. Pastoralism 1(8):1-16.

Benecke, Norbert. 1997. Archaeozoological Studies on the Transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic in the Northern Pontic Region. Anthropozoologica 25-26:631-641.

Benecke, Norbert, and Angela von den Driesch. 2003. Horse Exploitation in the Kazakh Steppe during the Eneolithic and Bronze Age. In Prehistoric Steppe Adaptation and the Horse. Marsha Levine, Colin Renfrew, and Katie Boyle, eds. London: McDonald Institute Monographs.

Berdyev, O. K. 1968. Chakmakly-Depe – Novyi Pamiatnik Vremni Anau IA. In Istoriia, Arkheologiia i Etnografiia Serednei Azii. Moscow.

Besenval, R. 2001. Brève notice sur la coopération Archéologique Franco-Tadjike. Cahiers d’Asie Centrale. [online, accessed February 27, 2012 –]

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, Virginia: Sweet Briar College.

Charles. M., and A. Bogaard. 2010. Charred Plant Macro-remains from Jeitun: Implications for Early Cultivation and Herding Practices in Western Central Asia. In: Harris D (ed) Origins of Agriculture in Western Central Asia: An environmental-archaeological study. (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia) pp 150–165.

Di Cosmo, Nicola. 1994. Ancient Inner Asian Nomads: Their Economic Basis and Its Significance in Chinese History. The Journal of Asian Studies 53(4):1092-1126.

Doumani, P. N., M. D. Frachetti, R. Beardmore, T. Schmaus, R. N. Spengler, A. N. Mar’yashev. In Review. Bronze Age Mountain Agriculture, Funerary Ritual, and Mobile Pastoralism at Tasbas, southeastern Kazakhstan. Journal of Archaeological Research

Field, Henry, and Eugene Prostov. 1938. Archaeology in the U.S.S.R. American Anthropologist 40(4, Part 1):653-679.

Frachetti, Michael D., Robert N. Spengler, Gayle J. Fritz, and Alexei N. Mar’yashev. 2010. Earliest Direct Evidence for Broomcorn Millet and Wheat in the Central Eurasian Steppe Region. Antiquity 84:993-1010.

Frachetti, M., and N. Benecke. 2009. From Sheep to (Some) Horses: 4500 Years of Herd Structure At The Pastoralist Settlement of Begash (Southeastern Kazakhstan). Antiquity 83(322):1023-1037.

Gadyuchenko. 2002. Organic Remains from Fortified Settlements and Necropoli of the “Country of Towns”. In Regional Specifics in Light of Global Models BC Complex Societies of Central Eurasia from the 3rd to the 1st Millennium. Volume 2: The Iron Age; Archaeoecology, Geoarchaeology, and Palaeogeography; Beyond Central Eurasia Karlene Jones-Bley and D. G. Zdanovich, eds. Pp. 400-418. Washington D.C.: Institute of Man.

Harrison, N. 1995. Preliminary Archaeobotanical Findings from Anau, 1994 excavations. Progress Report, Harvard IuTAKE Excavations at Anau South, Turkmenistan:28-36.

Harris, D., and C. Gosden. 1996. The Beginnings or Agriculture in Western Central Asia. In The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia, Harris D (ed) (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C.) pp. 370-389.

Harris, D., C. Gosden, and M. Charles. 1996. Jeitun: Recent Excavations at an Early Neolithic Site in Southern Turkmenistan. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 62:423-442.

Harris, D., V. Masson, Y. Berezkin, M. Charles, C. Gosden, et al. 1993. Investigating early agriculture in Central Asia: New Research at Jeitun, Turkmenistan. Antiquity 67:324-338.

Jia, Peter W., Alison Betts, and Xinhua Wu. 2011. New Evidence for Bronze Age Agricultural Settlements in the Zhunge’er (Junggar) Basin, China. Journal of Field Archaeology 36(4):269-280.

Korobkova, G. F. 1981. Ancient Reaping Tools and Their Productivity in the Light of Experimental Tracewear Analysis. In The Bronze Age Civilization of Central Asia: Recent Soviet Discoveries. Philip L. Khol, ed. Pp. 350-358. New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.

Koroluyk, E. A., and N. V. Polosmak. 2010. Plant Remains from Moin Ula Burial Mounds 20 and 31 (Northern Mongolia). Archaeology Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia 38(2):57-63.

Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C. 1994. Forward: Initiating and Archaeological Dialogue: The USA-USSR Archaeological Exchange. In Origins of the Bronze Age Oasis Civilization in Central Asia (American School of Prehistoric Research Bulletins) (Vol 42). Fredrik Talmage Hiebert, ed. Pp. XVII-XXIX. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum Press.

Larkum, Mary. 2010. Phytolith Analysis of Samples from On- and Off-Site Deposits at Jeitun. In Origins of Agriculture in Western Central Asia: An Environmental-Archaeological Study. David Harris, ed. Pp. 142-149. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Lisitsina, Gorislava N. 1969. The Earliest Irrigation in Turkmenia. Antiquity XLIII:279.

Lisitsina, Gorislava N. 1981. The History of Irrigation Agriculture in Southern Turkmenia. In The Bronze Age Civilization of Central Asia: Recent Soviet Discoveries. Philip L. Khol, ed. Pp. 350-358. New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.

Lisitsina, Gorislava N. 1984. The Caucasus – A Center of Ancient Farming in Eurasia. In Plants and Ancient Man. W. van Zeist, and W. A. Casparie, ed. Pp. 285-292. Balkema, Rotterdam.

Lister, Diane, and Martin Jones. 2013. Is Naked Barley an Eastern or a Western Crop? The Combined Evidence of Archaeobotany and Genetics. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 22(5):439–446.

Lyonnet, B. and A. I. Isakov. 1996. Sarazm (Tadjikistan) Céramiques: Chalcolithique et Bronze Ancien. Paris: De Boccard.

Miller, Naomi. 1996 unpublished. Plant Remains from Tuzusai and Talgar City, Kazakhstan, 1994 and 1995 seasons University of Pennsylvania Museum – MASCA Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology – Ethnobotanical Laboratory Report 16. 1999. Agricultural Development in Western Central Asia in the Chalcolithic and Bronze Ages. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 8:13-19.

Ethnobotanical Laboratory Report. 2003. The Use of Plants at Anau North. In A Central Asian Village at the Dawn of Civilization, Excavations at Anau, Turkmenistan. Fredrik T. Hiebert and Kakamurad Kurdansakhatov, eds. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Moore, Katherine, Naomi F. Miller, Fredrik T. Heibert, and Richard H. Meadow. 1994. Agriculture and Herding in Early Oasis Settlements of the Oxus Civilization. Antiquity 68:418-427.

Motuzaite-Matuzeviciute, G., S. Telizhenko, and M. K. Jones. 2012. Archaeobotanical Investigation of Two Scythian-Sarmatian Period Pits in Eastern Ukraine: Implications for Floodplain Cereal Cultivation. Journal of Field Archaeology 37:51–61.

Nesbitt, Mark. 1993. Archaeobotanical Remains. In The International Merv Project Preliminary Report on the First Season (1992). K. Kurbansakhatov and G. Herrmann, eds. Pp. 56-58. Iran: Unpublished Field Report.

Nesbitt, Mark. 1994. Archaeobotanical Research in the Merv Oasis. In The International Merv Project, Preliminary Report on the Second Season (1993). K. Kurbansakhatov and G. Herrmann, eds. Pp. 53-75. Iran: Unpublished Field Report.

Okladnikov, A. P. 1959. Ancient Population of Siberia and its Cultures. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Russian Translation Series of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, v. 1 no. 1 Peabody Museum.

Outram, Alan K., Natalie A. Stear, Robin Berdrey, Sandra Olsen, Alexei Kasparov, Victor Zaibert, Nick Thorpe, and Richard P. Evershed. 2009. The Earliest Horse Harnessing and Milking. Science 323:1332-1335.

Pashkevich, Galina. 1984. Palaeoethnobotanical Examination of Archaeological Sites in the Lower Dnieper Region, Dated to the Last Centuries BC and First Centuries AD. In Plants and Ancient Man: Studies in Palaeoethnobotany. W. van Zeist and W.A. Casparie, eds. Pp. 277-284. Boston: A.A. Balkema. 2003. Paleoethnobotanical Evidence of Agriculture in the Steppe and Forest-steppe of East Europe in the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age. In Prehistoric Steppe Adaptation and the Horse. Marsha Levine, Colin Renfrew, and Katie Boyle, eds. Pp. 287-297. London: McDonald.

Popova, Laura. 2006. Political Pastures: Navigating the Steppe in the Middle Volga Region (Russia) During the Bronze Age. Chicago: Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago.

Pumpelly, Raphael, ed. 1908. Explorations in Turkestan: Expadition of 1904, Prehistoric Civilizations of Anau. Volume two. Washington: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Razzokov, A. 2008. Sarazm. Dushanbe: Institute of History, Archaeology, and Ethnography. Dushanbe, Tajikistan: Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan A. Donish History, Archaeology and Ethnographic Institute.

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

Rudenko, Sergei I. 1962. Khunnu Culture and the Kurgans of Noin Ula [in Russian]. Moscow: Nauka.

Ryabogina, N., and S. Ivanov. 2011. Ancient Agriculture in Western Siberia: Problems of Argumentation, Paleoethnobotanic Methods, and Analysis of Data. Archaeology, Ethnology, and Anthropology of Eurasia 39(4): 96-106.

Shilov, V. P.1975. Models of Pastoral Economies in the Steppe Regions of Eurasia in the Enolithic and Early Bronze Ages [in Russian]. Sovietskaya Arkeologiya 1:5-16.

Shishlina, N. 2008. Reconstruction of the Bronze Age of the Caspian Steppe: Life Styles and Life Ways of Pastoral Nomads. Oxford: BAR International Series 1876.

Spengler, Robert N. III , Michael D. Frachetti, and Gayle J. Fritz. 2013. Ecotopes and Herd Foraging Practices in the Steppe/Mountain Ecotone of Central Asia during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Journal of Ethnobiology.

Spengler, Robert N. III, Claudia Chang, and Perry A. Tourtellotte. 2013. Agricultural Production in the Central Asian Mountains: Tuzusai, Kazakhstan (410-150 BC). Journal of Field Archaeology.

Spengler, Robert N., III, and George Willcox. 2013. Archaeobotanical Results from Sarazm, Tajikistan, an Early Bronze Age Village on the Edge: Agriculture and Exchange. Journal of Environmental Archaeology.

Willcox, George. 1991. Carbonized Plant Remains from Shortughai, Afghanistan. In New Light on Early Farming: Recent Developments in Palaeoethnobotany. J. M. Renfrew, ed. Pp. 139-153.

Wright, Joshua. 2006. The Adoption of Pastoralism in Northeast Asia, Monumental Transformations in the Egiin Gol Valley, Mongolia. Ph.D Dissertation in the Anthropology Department at Harvard University, Cambridge.

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

Leave a Reply