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.

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