Did Ancient Irrigation Technology Travel Silk Road?

Did Ancient Irrigation Technology Travel Silk Road?



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Using satellite imaging and drone reconnaissance, archaeologists from Washington University in St. Louis have discovered an ancient irrigation system that allowed a farming community in arid northwestern China to raise livestock and cultivate crops in one of the world’s driest desert climates.

Lost for centuries in the barren foothills of China’s Tian Shan Mountains, the ancient farming community remains hidden in plain sight — appearing little more than an odd scattering of round boulders and sandy ruts when viewed from the ground.

Surveyed from 30 meters above using drones and specialized image analysis software, the site shows the unmistakable outlines of check dams, irrigation canals and cisterns feeding a patchwork of small farm fields. Initial test excavations also confirm the locations of scattered farmhouses and grave sites, said Yuqi Li, a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology in Arts & Sciences who discovered the site with grant support from the National Geographic Society.

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Preliminary analysis, as detailed by Li and co-authors in the December issue of the journal Archaeological Research in Asia , suggests that the irrigation system was built in the 3rd or 4th century AD by local herding communities looking to add more crop cultivation to their mix of food and livestock production.

“As research on ancient crop exchanges along the Silk Road matures, archaeologists should investigate not only the crops themselves, but also the suite of technologies, such as irrigation, that would have enabled ‘agropastoralists’ to diversify their economies,” Li said.

“In recent years, more and more archaeologists started to realize that most of the so-called pastoralist/nomad communities in ancient Central Asia were also involved in agriculture,” Li added. “We think it’s more accurate to call them agropastoralists, because having an agricultural component in their economy was a normal phenomenon instead of a transitional condition.”

Working with The Spatial Analysis, Interpretation, and Exploration (SAIE) laboratory at Washington University, Li and colleagues first used satellite imagery to target an area known as MGK, so named for the adjacent Mohuchahan Valley, an intermontane valley of the Tian Shan.

More detailed on-site mapping was accomplished using a consumer-grade quadcopter drone and new photogrammetry software that stitched together about 2,000 geotagged aerial photos to create 3D models of the site.

The site provides researchers with a remarkably well-preserved example of a small-scale irrigation system that early farmers devised to grow grain crops in a climate that historically receives less than 3 inches (66 millimeters) of annual rainfall — about one-fifth of the water deemed necessary to cultivate even the most drought-tolerant strains of millet.

Researchers believe the site was used to cultivate millet, barley, wheat and perhaps grapes.

Researchers have identified seven areas along the Mohuchahan Valley (MGK), where ancient irrigation systems once functioned. The current study focuses the MGK4 plot. (Map: Courtesy of Archaeological Research in Asia )

The discovery is important, Li said, because it helps to resolve a long-running debate over how irrigation technologies first made their way into this arid corner of China’s Xinjiang region.

While some scholars suggest that all major irrigation techniques were first brought here by the troops of China’s Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Li’s study suggests that local agropastoral communities adopted many arid-climate irrigation techniques before the Han dynasty and kept using them to the post-Han era.

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Farm fields in the ancient irrigation system were edged with boulders to slow the escape of spring flood waters and encourage the deposit of nutrient-rich sediments. (Image: Yuqi Li)

A stream known as the Mohuchahan River drains the valley and carries a seasonal trickle of snow-melt and scarce rainfall down from the mountains before vanishing in the sands of China’s vast Taklamakan Desert.

The Tian Shan Mountains, which form the northern border of this desert, are part of a chain of mountain ranges that have long served as a central corridor for the prehistoric Silk Road routes between China and the Near East.

Li’s research on MGK builds on work by his Washington University colleague Michael Frachetti , professor of anthropology, whose research suggests that herding communities living along these mountain ranges formed a massive exchange network that spanned much of the Eurasian continent.

A drone's eye view

Hop aboard a DJI Phantom quadcopter for a low-altitude reconnaissance mission above the ancient irrigation system, courtesy of Yuqi Li.

Ongoing research by Frachetti and colleagues at Washington University contends that the seeds of early domestic crops gradually spread to new areas along this Inner Asian Mountain Corridor through social networks formed by ancient nomadic groups — who met as they moved herds to seasonal pastures.

Based on his research at MGK, Li argues that early irrigation technologies also followed this same route, passing from one pastoral group to another over thousands of years.

Li notes that small-scale irrigation systems similar to MGK were established at the Geokysur river delta oasis in southeast Turkmenistan about 3,000 BC and further west at the Tepe Gaz Tavila settlement in Iran about 5,000 BC.

The Wadi Faynan farming community, established in a desert environment in southern Jordan during the late Bronze Age, has an irrigation system nearly identical to the one at MGK, including boulder-constructed canals, cisterns and field boundaries.

Pilot excavations at MGK4 show that canals were relatively narrow and less than three feet deep. (Image: Courtesy of Archaeological Research in Asia )

Compared with known Han Dynasty irrigation systems in the Xinjiang region, the MGK system is small, irrigating about 500 acres across seven parcels along the Mohuchahan River. Li’s current study focuses on one of these seven parcels, known as MGK4, which provided irrigation for about 60 acres.

By contrast, the “tuntian” irrigation systems — introduced by the Han Dynasty at the Xinjiang communities of Milan and Loulan — used longer, wider and deeper straight-line channels to irrigate much larger areas, with one irrigating more than 12,000 acres.

While some researchers estimate that Han Dynasty workers would have had to move about 1.5 million cubic meters of dirt to build a tuntian system capable of irrigating 2,500 acres, Li calculates that the 500-acre system at MGK could have been constructed by a small community of farmers with much less effort in a few years.

“The irrigation system at MGK4 suggests that, although the Han Dynasty brought sophisticated irrigation technology to Xinjiang, this set of technology did not replace the irrigation technology that appeared earlier in Xinjiang,” Li said. “Instead, it continued to be used in the post-Han period. We believe the reason was that this set of technology was well-adapted to the ecological and social conditions faced by local agropastoralist communities.

“Given recent research on the routes of early crop exchanges, it is possible that the technological ‘know-how’ of irrigation in this region originated with earlier agropastoral traditions in western Central Asia,” Li added. “As a fundamental technology that underpinned the agropastoralist societies in Xinjiang, irrigation probably spread to Xinjiang through the Inner Asian Mountain Corridor along with crops during prehistory.”


The Silk Road: the Route for Technological Exchange that Shaped the Modern World

Despite what its evocative name suggests, what we know today as the Silk Road was not a route by means of which this fabric was exchanged, nor was it a single route or path that crossed the Asian continent to link the Far East with the West. Rather, it was a network of commercial, cultural and technological (and also disease) exchange routes that radiated from Central Asia. For 1,500 years these routes allowed China to be connected to the Mediterranean, playing a decisive role in the passage to the Modern Age.

Extent of Silk Road. Red is land route and the blue is the sea route.
Source: Wikimedia

This framework of roads had its roots in the network of routes that started in Persia and along which emissaries with messages galloped throughout the empire in the 4th century BC. However, in its final configuration, the Silk Road was officially opened in 130 BC, when the Chinese emperor sent his ambassador Zhang Quian on a diplomatic mission in search of new allies. In addition to pacts, the ambassador returned with a new breed of horses and saddles and stirrups used by western warriors. This is the first example of the Silk Road’s main function throughout history: the exchange of knowledge and technology.

The current view among historians is that the Silk Road —in service from its opening in 130 B.C. until the 14th century— was used by traders, religious, artists, fugitives and bandits, but above all by refugees and populations of emigrants or displaced persons. It is believed that it was precisely these groups of migrant populations who brought with them knowledge, tools, culture, products or crops (and with them possibly new techniques and irrigation systems ). They fostered a cultural and technological “globalization” that was literally going to change the world.


Silk Road

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Silk Road, also called Silk Route, ancient trade route, linking China with the West, that carried goods and ideas between the two great civilizations of Rome and China. Silk went westward, and wools, gold, and silver went east. China also received Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism (from India) via the Silk Road.

What was the Silk Road?

The Silk Road was an ancient trade route that linked the Western world with the Middle East and Asia. It was a major conduit for trade between the Roman Empire and China and later between medieval European kingdoms and China.

Where did the Silk Road start and end?

The Silk Road began in north-central China in Xi’an (in modern Shaanxi province). A caravan track stretched west along the Great Wall of China, across the Pamirs, through Afghanistan, and into the Levant and Anatolia. Its length was about 4,000 miles (more than 6,400 km). Goods were then shipped to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea.

What major goods traveled along the Silk Road?

Chinese merchants exported silk to Western buyers. From Rome and later from Christian kingdoms, wools, gold, and silver traveled eastward.

What traveled along the Silk Road besides goods?

Apart from material goods, religion was one of the West’s major exports along the Silk Road. Early Assyrian Christians took their faith to Central Asia and China, while merchants from the Indian subcontinent exposed China to Buddhism. Disease also traveled along the Silk Road. Many scholars believe that the bubonic plague was spread to Europe from Asia, causing the Black Death pandemic in the mid-14th century.

Is the Silk Road still used today?

Parts of the Silk Road survive in the form of a paved highway connecting Pakistan and the Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang in China. In the 21st century the United Nations planned to sponsor a trans-Asian motor highway and railroad. The Silk Road also inspired China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure development strategy authored by President and General Secretary Xi Jinping.

Originating at Xi’an (Sian), the 4,000-mile (6,400-km) road, actually a caravan tract, followed the Great Wall of China to the northwest, bypassed the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the Pamirs (mountains), crossed Afghanistan, and went on to the Levant from there the merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea. Few persons traveled the entire route, and goods were handled in a staggered progression by middlemen.

With the gradual loss of Roman territory in Asia and the rise of Arabian power in the Levant, the Silk Road became increasingly unsafe and untraveled. In the 13th and 14th centuries the route was revived under the Mongols, and at that time the Venetian Marco Polo used it to travel to Cathay (China). It is now widely thought that the route was one of the main ways that plague bacteria responsible for the Black Death pandemic in Europe in the mid-14th century moved westward from Asia.

Part of the Silk Road still exists, in the form of a paved highway connecting Pakistan and the Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, China. The old road has been the impetus behind a United Nations plan for a trans-Asian highway, and a railway counterpart of the road has been proposed by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). The road inspired cellist Yo-Yo Ma to found the Silk Road Project in 1999, which explored cultural traditions along its route and beyond as a means for connecting arts worldwide across cultures.


Why did people travel on the Silk Road

With its origins in the Han dynasty, the silk road was a series of trade routes that extended from China, across Central Asia, to as far as Europe. Historically, the Silk Road was a key link between China and the West. Stretching from Chang'an (Xi'an) to Dunhuang, through Xinjiang into Europe.
Since Chinese President Xi Jinping put forward the initiative to build the Belt and Road in 2013, the reputation of the silk road travel has become more and more popular in the world. Compiled below are some reasons why you should travel on the silk road in case you&rsquore in doubt.

Why take the Silk Road Tour?
Don&rsquot just sit there and follow the bandwagon. If you have the means you should come and witness for yourself.
There are many beautiful natural views and historical sites along the silk road and it's time to pick a destination and start packing! With the rapid development of China, a huge number of people are showing interest in " Silk Road Tours" to enjoy their holiday in a more flexible and fun way.
China offers plenty of wonderful scenic areas along the silk road. Here, I would like to recommend some famous places that will feast your eyes.

What to visit along silk road?
Visiting China along the silk road should be among the ticked places on your to-do list. China is an adventurer&rsquos wonderland. Forget the Great Wall, enter deep into the hinterlands. Visitors will be marvelled at the sheer number of grottoes and scenery in China. Even locals have a hard time choosing where to visit on holidays.
The point is all these scenic areas have stunning attractions with unimaginable grottoes and natural views that you can&rsquot find anywhere except in China. Top on the list are Luoyang, Xi'an, Dunhuang, Zhangye and Xinjiang. However, some travel destinations in Xinjiang are relatively unknown to expats living in China because of the remoteness of the regions, such as Turpan and Kanas etc.

Longmen Grottoes:
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Longmen Grottoes represent the high point of Chinese stone carving and will blow your mind. It is home to more than 2,300 caves and niches that were delicately carved into the limestone cliffs of over one kilometre long.
There are around 110,000 Buddhist stone statues and more than 2,800 inscriptions carved on the stones, as well as plenty of historical materials regarding religion, art, calligraphy, architecture and more.

Ancient cities connected along the Silk Road Xi'an:
Chang'an was one of the most important ancient imperial capitals and cities in Chinese history and was located close to today's Xi'an, in Shaanxi Province. As the starting point of the Silk Road, it was an industrial and commercial hub of the nation for millennia and acted as a key crossroads for people of various cultural backgrounds, ethnic identities and religious beliefs from regions throughout Asia and the Middle East.
The ancient city featured two bustling business and trade districts - the East Market and the West Market - both thriving centres of commerce in Chang'an during the Tang Dynasty. The West Market, which was dedicated to trade in foreign and exotic merchandise, attracted a great number of international customers and merchants, bringing together people from Central Asia, Persia, Arabia, South Asia, Korea and Japan.

Muslim Quarter:
The Muslim Quarter is the first place you can sense the city of Xi'an. This old city not only was the origin of the ancient Silk Road but also witnessed the gradual fusion of western and eastern culture and philosophy. Now, the Belt and Road Initiative will extend that diversity.
Tourists from all over the world visit Xi'an for many reasons. There is no doubt that the Muslim Quarter is on their "must-go" travel list here. The Muslim Quarter has survived many dynastic changes and thrived with well-preserved traditions. The local Muslim population has left its influence on the cuisine at the main food street as well. Therefore, if anyone likes exotic food, this street will be the best choice.

Terracotta Warriors:
The diverse heritage in Xi'an is supreme, particularly with the highlight of Terracotta warriors and horses, a collection of more than 7,000 life-sized terracotta sculptures serving as a protection for the tomb of Qin Shi Huang (the first emperor who unified the country). Historical records reveal that it took over 700,000 people's some 30 years to complete.
Soldier figures are varied in facial expressions, clothing, hairstyles and gestures so are their horses, chariots and weapons. These masterpieces have provided abundant detailed evidence for the study of the history of military, culture, art, and economics of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.).
Considered as one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century, these delicately crafted and painted models have delighted millions of visitors both at home and abroad.

Ancient City Wall:
The natives always say the journey to Xi'an is not complete without visiting the Ancient City Wall, which has been stretched round to guard the inner city since the 13th century. Even nowadays, the massive, ancient City Wall is still strong and solid. It is the best-preserved city wall in China, and also one of the oldest intact military fortifications in the world.
Xi'an City Wall stretches almost 14 kilometres (8.7 miles) in length. The best way to see the entire wall might be cycling. Rental bikes are available around. If you are at a leisurely pace, biking the entirety takes approximately 1.5 to 2 hours. Keep your eyes open for the spectacular gates, ramparts, and a deep moat surrounding the wall.

Tips:
Every March to May and September to November is the best time to travel to Xi'an. If you're interested in a lingering longer, read this post: How to perfect your 72-hour visa-free stay in Xi'an.

Zhangye:
In Chines history, Zhangye City is part of the Hexi Corridor, which is an important route for connecting China to the Western world in Gansu Province via the Silk Road.
Zhangye Danxia landform that can be found in Zhangye National Geopark. Located at Zhangye City, northwest China's Gansu Province, the hills cover an area of 322 square kilometres. From the sky, the vast land is covered with red cliffs in different shapes and rainbow ridges in multiple colours.
The rainbow is a common natural phenomenon, but people still fancy it because it vanishes quickly.

When is the best time to visit?
Marco Polo spent a year here around 1274 and wrote in his book "The Travels of Marco Polo" that this region was an international trade market. Nowadays, it has turned into a tourism city that attracts many people. June and July each year are the best months to visit Zhangye National Geopark. During the rainy season, the water can cool you from the summer heat and add moisture to the air.
It is best to visit in the morning and at dusk, especially at sunset, when the colours change continuously, showing yellow and red layers covered by a light grey layer.
Approximate sunset time: 7:30 pm in spring and autumn 8:00 pm in summer.


Best time to Dunhuang:
Every April to October is the best time to travel to Dunhuang. In summer, the sun is quite strong so sunscreen or sunscreen products are quite essential.
In winter it&rsquos very cold so tourists are suggested to take plenty of warm clothes.

Turpan:
As the Silk Road trading post in ancient times, the Tupan oasis is surrounded by desert, mountains, ruined cities and Thousand Buddha Caves.
Riding in the Flaming Mountains, it will be a great opportunity to take pictures. Made famous by the ancient Chinese classic novel Journey to the West, the surfaces of these desiccated mountains have been whipped into the shape of flames by howling desert winds. Under the relentless heat of the midday sun, the mountains radiate heat and with a dash of imagination, may appear to be on fire.

Karez Irrigation Site:
One of the most interesting stops on the tour is a Karez Irrigation Site. It's the site the locals are most proud of, and rightfully so-the irrigation method is probably their greatest contribution to desert dwellers and has been employed as far away as Afghanistan and Iran. More than 2,000 years ago, it was developed as a way to bring the snowmelt waters of the Tian Shan to the city through a series of wells dug into underground water channels. By transporting the water underground, they were able to prevent evaporation and to keep dust and dirt out of their water supply. The Karez Irrigation Site is like a museum explaining how the wells are built and maintained and even includes a sample channel and well that you can explore.

Jiaohe Ruins:
The Jiaohe Ruins was built during the Han dynasty as a Chinese garrison town to defend the borderlands, it's less romantic but better preserved than Gaochang. Although the town was razed by Genghis Khan and his Mongol army, many structures maintain some semblance of their original form. Roads lead clearly through the town and a monastery with statues of the Buddha still stands. The town was built on an island at the confluence of two rivers. As the tours usually stop here in the late afternoon, the sunlight turns the stone almost golden and shutterbugs can have a field day.

Best time to Turpan:
Though summer is blisteringly hot with temperatures going up to 48 degree Celsius, it's also the peak travel time and when the town moves into full swing to cater to tourists. Though spring may be cooler, there are often sandstorms that are much harder to deal with than the heat. Autumn is probably the ideal time to be here through the winter can come on fast, bringing with it the biting cold of the desert.
Every August 25 there's the annual Silk Road Turpan Grape Festival at the Turpan Travel and Culture Square.

Urumqi:
As the provincial city of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Urumqi has become a new metropolis in northwest China over the last few years.
The International Bazaar is a good place to end our journey. It covers a huge commercial complex with a local food plaza, shopping plaza, ethnic handicraft stores, exhibitions, an outdoor performance square, and mosques. It is the largest Bazaar in China and the landmark tourist attraction in Urumqi.


Recommended Silk Road Tours:


14 Days Xinjiang Picture Landscape with Ethnic Flavour Tour West China Travel to Qinghai and Gansu

12 Days Silk Road Travel to Qinghai-Gansu and Xinjiang Silk Road Travel from Malaysia by Airasia


Did Ancient Irrigation Technology Travel Silk Road?

Using satellite imaging and drone reconnaissance, archaeologists from Washington University in St. Louis have discovered an ancient irrigation system that allowed a farming community in arid northwestern China to raise livestock and cultivate crops in one of the world’s driest desert climates.

Lost for centuries in the barren foothills of China’s Tian Shan Mountains, the ancient farming community remains hidden in plain sight — appearing little more than an odd scattering of round boulders and sandy ruts when viewed from the ground.

Surveyed from 30 meters above using drones and specialized image analysis software, the site shows the unmistakable outlines of check dams, irrigation canals and cisterns feeding a patchwork of small farm fields. Initial test excavations also confirm the locations of scattered farmhouses and grave sites, said Yuqi Li, a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology in Arts & Sciences who discovered the site with grant support from the National Geographic Society.

Preliminary analysis, as detailed by Li and co-authors in the December issue of the journal Archaeological Research in Asia, suggests that the irrigation system was built in the 3rd or 4th century A.D. by local herding communities looking to add more crop cultivation to their mix of food and livestock production.

“As research on ancient crop exchanges along the Silk Road matures, archaeologists should investigate not only the crops themselves, but also the suite of technologies, such as irrigation, that would have enabled ‘agropastoralists’ to diversify their economies,” Li said.

“In recent years, more and more archaeologists started to realize that most of the so-called pastoralist/nomad communities in ancient Central Asia were also involved in agriculture,” Li added. “We think it’s more accurate to call them agropastoralists, because having an agricultural component in their economy was a normal phenomenon instead of a transitional condition.”

The Spatial Analysis, Interpretation, and Exploration (SAIE) laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis is devoted to understanding human societies through time and across space.

Working with The Spatial Analysis, Interpretation, and Exploration (SAIE) laboratory at Washington University, Li and colleagues first used satellite imagery to target an area known as MGK, so named for the adjacent Mohuchahan Valley, an intermontane valley of the Tian Shan.

More detailed on-site mapping was accomplished using a consumer-grade quadcopter drone and new photogrammetry software that stitched together about 2,000 geotagged aerial photos to create 3D models of the site.

The site provides researchers with a remarkably well-preserved example of a small-scale irrigation system that early farmers devised to grow grain crops in a climate that historically receives less than 3 inches (66 millimeters ) of annual rainfall — about one-fifth of the water deemed necessary to cultivate even the most drought-tolerant strains of millet.

Researchers believe the site was used to cultivate millet, barley, wheat and perhaps grapes.

Researchers have identified seven areas along the Mohuchahan River where ancient irrigation systems once functioned. The current study focuses the MGK4 plot.

The discovery is important, Li said, because it helps to resolve a long-running debate over how irrigation technologies first made their way into this arid corner of China’s Xinjiang region.

While some scholars suggest that all major irrigation techniques were first brought here by the troops of China’s Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), Li’s study suggests that local agropastoral communities adopted many arid-climate irrigation techniques before the Han dynasty and kept using them to the post-Han era.

A stream known as the Mohuchahan River drains the valley and carries a seasonal trickle of snow-melt and scarce rainfall down from the mountains before vanishing in the sands of China’s vast Taklamakan Desert.

The Tian Shan Mountains, which form the northern border of this desert, are part of a chain of mountain ranges that have long served as a central corridor for the prehistoric Silk Road routes between China and the Near East.

Li’s research on MGK builds on work by his Washington University colleague Michael Frachetti, professor of anthropology, whose research suggests that herding communities living along these mountain ranges formed a massive exchange network that spanned much of the Eurasian continent.

Ongoing research by Frachetti and colleagues at Washington University contends that the seeds of early domestic crops gradually spread to new areas along this Inner Asian Mountain Corridor through social networks formed by ancient nomadic groups — who met as they moved herds to seasonal pastures.

Based on his research at MGK, Li argues that early irrigation technologies also followed this same route, passing from one pastoral group to another over thousands of years.

Li notes that small-scale irrigation systems similar to MGK were established at the Geokysur river delta oasis in southeast Turkmenistan about 3,000 B.C. and further west at the Tepe Gaz Tavila settlement in Iran about 5,000 B.C.

The Wadi Faynan farming community, established in a desert environment in southern Jordan during the late Bronze Age, has an irrigation system nearly identical to the one at MGK, including boulder-constructed canals, cisterns and field boundaries.

Compared with known Han Dynasty irrigation systems in the Xinjiang region, the MGK system is small, irrigating about 500 acres across seven parcels along the Mohuchahan River. Li’s current study focuses on one of these seven parcels, known as MGK4, which provided irrigation for about 60 acres.

By contrast, the “tuntian” irrigation systems — introduced by the Han Dynasty at the Xinjiang communities of Milan and Loulan — used longer, wider and deeper straight-line channels to irrigate much larger areas, with one irrigating more than 12,000 acres.

While some researchers estimate that Han Dynasty workers would have had to move about 1.5 million cubic meters of dirt to build a tuntian system capable of irrigating 2,500 acres, Li calculates that the 500-acre system at MGK could have been constructed by a small community of farmers with much less effort in a few years.

“The irrigation system at MGK4 suggests that, although the Han Dynasty brought sophisticated irrigation technology to Xinjiang, this set of technology did not replace the irrigation technology that appeared earlier in Xinjiang,” Li said. “Instead, it continued to be used in the post-Han period. We believe the reason was that this set of technology was well-adapted to the ecological and social conditions faced by local agropastoralist communities.

“Given recent research on the routes of early crop exchanges, it is possible that the technological ‘know-how’ of irrigation in this region originated with earlier agropastoral traditions in western Central Asia,” Li added. “As a fundamental technology that underpinned the agropastoralist societies in Xinjiang, irrigation probably spread to Xinjiang through the Inner Asian Mountain Corridor along with crops during prehistory.”

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Did ancient irrigation technology travel Silk Road?

Using satellite imaging and drone reconnaissance, archaeologists from Washington University in St. Louis have discovered an ancient irrigation system that allowed a farming community in arid northwestern China to raise livestock and cultivate crops in one of the world’s driest desert climates.

Lost for centuries in the barren foothills of China’s Tian Shan Mountains, the ancient farming community remains hidden in plain sight — appearing little more than an odd scattering of round boulders and sandy ruts when viewed from the ground.

Surveyed from 30 meters above using drones and specialized image analysis software, the site shows the unmistakable outlines of check dams, irrigation canals and cisterns feeding a patchwork of small farm fields. Initial test excavations also confirm the locations of scattered farmhouses and grave sites, said Yuqi Li, a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology in Arts & Sciences who discovered the site with grant support from the National Geographic Society.

Preliminary analysis, as detailed by Li and co-authors in the December issue of the journal Archaeological Research in Asia, suggests that the irrigation system was built in the 3rd or 4th century A.D. by local herding communities looking to add more crop cultivation to their mix of food and livestock production.

“As research on ancient crop exchanges along the Silk Road matures, archaeologists should investigate not only the crops themselves, but also the suite of technologies, such as irrigation, that would have enabled ‘agropastoralists’ to diversify their economies,” Li said.

“In recent years, more and more archaeologists started to realize that most of the so-called pastoralist/nomad communities in ancient Central Asia were also involved in agriculture,” Li added. “We think it’s more accurate to call them agropastoralists, because having an agricultural component in their economy was a normal phenomenon instead of a transitional condition.”

Working with The Spatial Analysis, Interpretation, and Exploration (SAIE) laboratory at Washington University, Li and colleagues first used satellite imagery to target an area known as MGK, so named for the adjacent Mohuchahan Valley, an intermontane valley of the Tian Shan.

More detailed on-site mapping was accomplished using a consumer-grade quadcopter drone and new photogrammetry software that stitched together about 2,000 geotagged aerial photos to create 3D models of the site.

The site provides researchers with a remarkably well-preserved example of a small-scale irrigation system that early farmers devised to grow grain crops in a climate that historically receives less than 3 inches (66 millimeters ) of annual rainfall — about one-fifth of the water deemed necessary to cultivate even the most drought-tolerant strains of millet.

Researchers believe the site was used to cultivate millet, barley, wheat and perhaps grapes.

The discovery is important, Li said, because it helps to resolve a long-running debate over how irrigation technologies first made their way into this arid corner of China’s Xinjiang region.

While some scholars suggest that all major irrigation techniques were first brought here by the troops of China’s Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), Li’s study suggests that local agropastoral communities adopted many arid-climate irrigation techniques before the Han dynasty and kept using them to the post-Han era.

A stream known as the Mohuchahan River drains the valley and carries a seasonal trickle of snow-melt and scarce rainfall down from the mountains before vanishing in the sands of China’s vast Taklamakan Desert.

The Tian Shan Mountains, which form the northern border of this desert, are part of a chain of mountain ranges that have long served as a central corridor for the prehistoric Silk Road routes between China and the Near East.

Li’s research on MGK builds on work by his Washington University colleague Michael Frachetti, professor of anthropology, whose research suggests that herding communities living along these mountain ranges formed a massive exchange network that spanned much of the Eurasian continent.

Ongoing research by Frachetti and colleagues at Washington University contends that the seeds of early domestic crops gradually spread to new areas along this Inner Asian Mountain Corridor through social networks formed by ancient nomadic groups — who met as they moved herds to seasonal pastures.

Based on his research at MGK, Li argues that early irrigation technologies also followed this same route, passing from one pastoral group to another over thousands of years.

Li notes that small-scale irrigation systems similar to MGK were established at the Geokysur river delta oasis in southeast Turkmenistan about 3,000 B.C. and further west at the Tepe Gaz Tavila settlement in Iran about 5,000 B.C.

The Wadi Faynan farming community, established in a desert environment in southern Jordan during the late Bronze Age, has an irrigation system nearly identical to the one at MGK, including boulder-constructed canals, cisterns and field boundaries.

Compared with known Han Dynasty irrigation systems in the Xinjiang region, the MGK system is small, irrigating about 500 acres across seven parcels along the Mohuchahan River. Li’s current study focuses on one of these seven parcels, known as MGK4, which provided irrigation for about 60 acres.

By contrast, the “tuntian” irrigation systems — introduced by the Han Dynasty at the Xinjiang communities of Milan and Loulan — used longer, wider and deeper straight-line channels to irrigate much larger areas, with one irrigating more than 12,000 acres.

While some researchers estimate that Han Dynasty workers would have had to move about 1.5 million cubic meters of dirt to build a tuntian system capable of irrigating 2,500 acres, Li calculates that the 500-acre system at MGK could have been constructed by a small community of farmers with much less effort in a few years.

“The irrigation system at MGK4 suggests that, although the Han Dynasty brought sophisticated irrigation technology to Xinjiang, this set of technology did not replace the irrigation technology that appeared earlier in Xinjiang,” Li said. “Instead, it continued to be used in the post-Han period. We believe the reason was that this set of technology was well-adapted to the ecological and social conditions faced by local agropastoralist communities.

“Given recent research on the routes of early crop exchanges, it is possible that the technological ‘know-how’ of irrigation in this region originated with earlier agropastoral traditions in western Central Asia,” Li added. “As a fundamental technology that underpinned the agropastoralist societies in Xinjiang, irrigation probably spread to Xinjiang through the Inner Asian Mountain Corridor along with crops during prehistory.”


Dangers of the Silk Road

The Gobi Desert is the largest desert in Asia, and stretches across modern day China and Mongolia. Whilst this desert can be divided into several different eco-regions, it may be said to consist, generally speaking, mainly of rocky, compact terrain. It is this feature of the Gobi Desert that made it easier for trade caravans to travel across the desert, as opposed, for example, to the sandy terrain of the neighboring Taklamakan Desert. Like other deserts, the Gobi Desert is arid, and therefore the biggest challenge facing those who choose to traverse it is to obtain enough water for themselves as well as for their camels.

One of the consequences of the need for water in the Gobi Desert is the foundation of rest stops / caravanserais along the route taken by the travelers. These stops allowed travelers to rest, to have food and drink, and to prepare themselves for the next portion of their journey. These places also facilitated the exchange of goods, and even ideas, amongst the travelers who stopped there. Ideally, these caravanserais were placed within a day’s journey of each other. In this way, travelers could avoid spending too much time in the desert, which would make them targets for bandits, another danger of the Silk Road.

Sogdian painting showing Sogdian merchants during the medieval period. ( Public Domain )

Once the Gobi Desert is navigated, travelers would continue their journey into Iran, Turkey, and finally Europe. Whilst this part of the journey may be less dangerous than the Gobi Desert, it is not entirely without its perils. The political situation in each of these areas is vital in determining the success of the trade endeavors. As an example, when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in AD 1453, they decided to stop trading with the West, which resulted in a drastic decline in the use of the Silk Road. Conversely, when the Mongols established their empire, which included China and Central Asia, where the Silk Road passed through, political stability was brought to these regions, which allowed trade along the Silk Road to flourish.

Samarkand, by Richard-Karl Karlovitch Zommer. This was an ancient city on the Silk road positioned between China and the Mediterranean, in modern day Uzbekistan. ( Public Domain )


Tang Dynasty noblewoman buried with her donkeys, for the love of polo

A noblewoman from Imperial China enjoyed playing polo on donkeys so much she had her steeds buried with her so she could keep doing it in the afterlife, archaeologists found. This discovery by a team that includes Fiona Marshall, the James W. and Jean L. Davis Professor in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, is published March 17 in the journal Antiquity.

The research provides the first physical evidence of donkey polo in Imperial China, which previously was only known from historical texts. It also sheds light on the role for donkeys in the lives of high status women in that period.

Researchers found donkey bones in the tomb of Cui Shi, a noblewoman who died in 878 AD in Xi'an, China. The presence of work animals in a wealthy woman's tomb was unexpected, the researchers said.

"Donkeys were the first pack animal, the steam engines of their day in Africa and western Eurasia, but we know almost nothing about their use in eastern Asia," said Marshall, an archaeologist in the Department of Anthropology. She helped study the animal bones found in Cui Shi's tomb.

"Donkey skeletons just have not been found -- this is probably because they died along trade routes and were not preserved," she said. "The donkeys buried in the Tang Dynasty noble tomb in Xian provided a first opportunity -- and a very rare one -- to understand donkeys' roles in east Asian societies."

"There was no reason for a lady such as Cui Shi to use a donkey, let alone sacrifice it for her afterlife," said lead author Songmei Hu, from the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology. "This is the first time such a burial has been found."

Polo is thought to have its origins in Iran however, the sport flourished during the Tang Dynasty, which ruled China from AD 618 to 907. During this time, polo became a favorite sport of the royal and noble families, to the point where an emperor used a polo competition to pick generals. This included Cui Shi's husband, Bao Gao, who was promoted to general by Emperor Xizong for winning a match.

However, the sport was dangerous when played on large horses, with one emperor killed during a game. As such, some nobles preferred to play Lvju, or donkey polo. Although both forms of polo are mentioned in the historical literature, horse polo is the only form depicted in art and artifacts.

The researchers conducted radiocarbon dating and analyzed the size and patterns of stresses and strains on the donkey bones from Cui Shi's tomb. Their findings suggest that these small and active donkeys were being used for Lvju. Given that animals were typically included in burials for use in the afterlife, the donkeys' presence with Cui Shi allowed the researchers to conclude that she wanted to keep playing her favorite sport after death.

Taken together, this research provides the first physical evidence of donkeys being used by elite women and of donkey polo in Imperial China, the researchers said. As the first donkey skeletons from eastern Asia to be thoroughly studied, they also broaden the understanding of the role of donkeys in the past.


Origins of domestic turkeys in Mayan and Aztec culture

An international team of researchers from the University of York, the Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico, Washington State University and Simon Fraser University have been studying the earliest indication of domestic turkeys in ancient Mexico.
The team studied the spatial remains of 55 turkeys, dating from between 300BCE-1500CE in various parts of pre-Columbian Meso-America.
They discovered that Turkeys weren’t just a prized food source, but was also culturally significant for sacrifices and ritual practices.
Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, Dr Aurélie Manin, said: “Turkey bones are rarely found in domestic refuse in Mesoamerica and most of the turkeys we studied had not been eaten – some were found buried in temples and human graves, perhaps as companions for the afterlife. This fits with what we know about the iconography of the period, where we see turkeys depicted as gods and appearing as symbols in the calendar.
“The archaeological evidence suggests that meat from deer and rabbit was a more popular meal choice for people in pre-Columbian societies turkeys are likely to have also been kept for their increasingly important symbolic and cultural role”.
Dr Camilla Speller of the University of York said: “Even though humans in this part of the word had been practicing agriculture for around 10,000 years, the turkey was the first animal, other than the dog, people in Mesoamerica started to take under their control.
“Turkeys would have made a good choice for domestication as there were not many other animals of suitable temperament available and turkeys would have been drawn to human settlements searching for scraps”
Some of the remains the researchers analysed were from a cousin of the common turkey – the brightly plumed Ocellated turkey. In a strange twist the researchers found that the diets of these more ornate birds remained largely composed of wild plants and insects, suggesting that they were left to roam free and never domesticated.
The team also measured the carbon isotope ratios in the turkey bones to reconstruct their diets. They found that the turkeys were gobbling crops cultivated by humans such as corn in increasing amounts, particularly in the centuries leading up to Spanish exploration, implying more intensive farming of the birds.
Interestingly, the gradual intensification of turkey farming does not directly correlate to an increase in human population size, a link you would expect to see if turkeys were reared simply as a source of nutrition.
By analysing the DNA of the birds, the researches were also able to confirm that modern European turkeys descend from Mexican ancestors.
York University

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Tian Chi Lake, Urumqi, China

Capping off a travel the Silk Road tour is a visit to Tian Chi Lake. Located 2,000-meters above sea level along the foothills of the Heavenly Mountains, Tian Chi — romantically known as the Lake of Heaven — must have presented an awe-inspiring vista of snow-covered peaks, sparkling waterfalls, and lush green meadows to travel-weary traders from the Silk Road. Even today, Tian Chi is a perfect way to end what was a remarkable trip through the ancient locales along the legendary Silk Road.


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