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Eurasian Farming Started Earlier Than Believed

Update Date: Apr 02, 2014 05:47 PM EDT

Ancient central Asian sheepherders played a significant role in the early spread of domesticated crops, new findings suggest.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis recently found 5,000-year-old grains of charred barley, millet and wheat at campsites in the high plains of Kazakhstan. The findings suggest that these strains of ancient grains and peas had made their way across Eurasia thousands of years earlier than previously believed.

Researchers said the latest findings show that nomadic herders played a surprisingly important role in agriculture throughout a mountainous east-west corridor along the historic Silk Road.

"Our findings indicate that ancient nomadic pastoralists were key players in an east-west network that linked innovations and commodities between present-day China and southwest Asia," study co-author Michael Frachetti, PhD, an associate professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University and principal investigator on the research project, said in a university release.

"Ancient wheat and broomcorn millet, recovered in nomadic campsites in Kazakhstan, show that prehistoric herders in Central Eurasia had incorporated both regional crops into their economy and rituals nearly 5,000 years ago, pushing back the chronology of interaction along the territory of the 'Silk Road' more than 2,000 years," Frachetti added.

While the ancient grains and peas documented in the study have been known to exist much earlier in ancient China and Southwest Asia, their existence in the Bronze Age burials and households of nomadic pastoralists provides some of the earliest concrete evidence for east-west interaction in the Eurasian mountains and the first botanical evidence for agriculture among Bronze Age nomads.

Researchers said that bread wheat was farmed at least 6,000 years ago in Southwest Asia, but was absent in China before 2,500 B.C. However, broomcorn millet was domesticated 8,000 years ago in China, and wasn't found in southwest Asian before 2,000 B.C. The latest study suggest that ancient grains from eastern China and southwest Asia had made their way to Kazakhstan in the center of the continent by 2,700-2,500 B.C.- which was nearly 5,000 years ago.

"This study starts to rewrite the model for economic change across Eurasia," first author Robert Spengler, PhD, a paleoethnobotanist and research associate in Arts & Sciences at WUSTL, said in a news release. "It illustrates that nomads had diverse economic systems and were important for reshaping economic spheres more generally."

"Finding this diverse crop assemblage at Tasbas and Begash illustrates first evidence for the westward spread of East Asian and Southwest Asian crops eastward, and the surprise is that it is nomads who are the agents of change," Frachetti added.

The study was published April 2 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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