May 24, 2011

Michael Frachetti on the Inner Asian Mountain Corridor

Here is another video of Michael Frachetti's talk in the Secrets of the Silk Road symposium:

The abstract of the talk:

Abstract - Seeds for the Soul: East/West Diffusion of Domesticated Grains along the Inner Asian Mountain Corridor.
Inner Asia has commonly been conceived as a region of Nomadic societies surrounded by agricultural civilizations throughout Antiquity. Societies of China, SW Asia, and Eastern Europe each developed agriculture in the Neolithic, while the earliest evidence for agriculture from the Eurasian steppe shows it was not a major part of local economies until the Iron Age (c. 700 BC). Newly discovered botanical evidence of ancient domesticated wheat and millet at the site of Begash in Kazakhstan, however, show that mobile pastoralists of the steppe had access to domesticated grains already by 2300 BC and that they were likely essential to the diffusion of wheat into China, as well as millet into SW Asia and Europe in the mid-3rd millennium BC. Currently, Begash provides the only directly dated botanical evidence of these crisscrossed channels of interaction. Whatsmore, the seeds from Begash were found in a ritual cremation context rather than domestic hearths. This fact may suggest that the earliest transmission of domesticated grains between China and SW Asia was sparked by ideological, rather than economic forces. This paper describes the earliest known evidence of wheat in the Eurasian steppes and explores the extent of ritual use of domesticated grains from China to SW Asia, across the Inner Asian mountains.

All in all a very enlightening talk that suggests that the mountain corridor south of the Caspian Sea, lands that would later be part of the Silk Road was the main conduit for cultural exchange between east and west, with Begash having the earliest presence of wheat in the steppe in a ritual context (more below).

His passing remark about the absence of grains east of the Don and all the way to Mongolia is interesting in terms of some of my recent comments.

Frachetti points out how misguided it is to view the Eurasian steppe as a uniform culture area, pointing out that the horse and cattle were more important in the European steppe, whereas goats were much more important in the Asian steppe with a full-blown pastoralist economy that did not depend on horses.

He thinks that domesticated wheat and millet moved in opposite directions (from West Asia and China) and arrived in Central Asia, a land formerly devoid of the cereals that were used in the great civilizations of the Aegean, Near East, South Asia, and China.

His inference that the wheat at Begash and Xiaohe had a ritual funerary use seems very well-argued, although over time wheat acquired an alimentary role as well. They basically find no grains anywhere on the site except at a cremation burial from an early period where wheat was deposited; the existence of a cremation burial is in itself interesting.

During the Q&A an attendee expresses incredulity that wheat would be used in such a context, but really I see no problem with it, as the offering of wheat in that context has a long history, and is, indeed, widely practiced even today.

At Begash we seem to be witnessing the beginnings of the spread of ideology to a steppe population. These steppe pastoralists seem to be adopting the use of wheat as a symbol of life, or "food for the dead", and the fact that they probably traded for this commodity suggests its symbolic importance to them.

1 comment:

simon said...

I think Herodotus stated that the Royal Scythians did not eat wheat, but used it to trade with the Greeks.He makes the distinction between the Royal Scythians who came from the east and Scythian Farmers.