1st LD-Writethru: Researchers find new evidence of pre-Silk Road trans-Eurasian exchange

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BEIJING, March 6 (Xinhua) -- An international research team has found 5,200-year-old common wheat and naked barley grains from the Altai Mountains in central Asia, providing the earliest evidence of the eastward spread of wheat cultivation and the steppe route of east-west communication.

The ancient people moved these crops across Eurasia about 1,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to the study by archaeologists, biologists and paleoclimatologists of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH) in Germany and Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology.

Cereal crops, notably common wheat and naked barley, originated in the Fertile Crescent of southwest Asia, while millet originated in what is today's northern China. These crops spread across the ancient world and became integrated into complex farming systems that used crop-rotation cycles.

There were three main land routes in the early days of Eurasia: the southern Himalayan, the oasis in central Asia to the Tarim basin, and the steppes in north Asia. But it was previously not clear when and how this process occurred because of lack of data.

Zhou Xinying, of the IVPP, said the new study shows that as early agricultural populations in western Asia and Iran spread, common wheat and naked barley reached the foothills of the western Tianshan Mountains in central Asia around 5,500 years ago, and the early agriculture and animal husbandry populations in central Asia may have directed the dispersal of productive economies northward to the Altai Mountains around 5,200 years ago.

Then the agro-pastoralists in the Altai Mountains may have transferred common wheat and naked barley into the Hexi Corridor, from where these crops eventually dispersed into the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, as well as to the middle and lower basin of the Yellow River, Zhou said.

The study also shows that the steppe route was the main path of the early exchange before the Silk Road was formally opened in the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD).

The pre-Silk Road trans-Eurasian civilization exchange is one of the most significant events in the history of human social development, said Li Xiaoqiang, another member of the research team from IVPP.

"In China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Iran, India, and Europe, each farming community had its own type of crops and agriculture system that had been selected and cultivated for generations. Each grain of these crops had accumulated thousands of years of human labor, and was the most precious heritage of their cultures," said Li.

The pre-Silk Road exchange routes played an important role in shaping human cultural developments across Europe and Asia, and facilitated the dispersal of technologies, such as horse breeding and metal smelting into East Asia, said Robert Spengler, of MPI-SHH.

The study was recently published online in the journal Nature Plants. Enditem

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