Wheat and barley evolved from large-seeded annual grasses in the arid, low latitudes of Asia; their spread into higher elevations and northern latitudes involved corresponding evolutionary adaptations in these plants, including traits for frost tolerance and shifts in photoperiod sensitivity. The adaptation of farming populations to these northern latitudes was also a complex and poorly understood process that included changes in cultivation practices and the varieties of crops grown. In this article, we push back the earliest dates for the spread of wheat and barley into northern regions of Asia as well as providing earlier cultural links between East and West Asia. The archaeobotanical, palynological and anthracological data we present come from the Tongtian Cave site in the Altai Mountains, with a punctuated occupation dating between 5,200 and 3,200 calibrated years bp, coinciding with global cooling of the middle–late Holocene transition. These early low-investment agropastoral populations in the north steppe area played a major role in the prehistoric trans-Eurasian exchange.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $9.92 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
All radiocarbon dates and the calibration curve as produced in OxCal are presented in Supplementary Fig. 3; uncalibrated dates and laboratory identification codes are presented in Supplementary Table 1. All quantified macrobotanical data are presented in Supplementary Table 2. Palynological data are all presented in Fig. 5. Archaeobotanical remains are housed at the IVPP in Beijing; these materials are available for further examination upon request. High-quality photos of key specimen are presented in this manuscript.
Jones, M. et al. Food globalization in prehistory. World Archaeol. 43, 665–675 (2011).
Motuzaite-Matuzeviciute, G., Staff, R. A., Hunt, H. V., Liu, X. & Jones, M. K. The early chronology of broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum) in Europe. Antiquity 87, 1073–1085 (2013).
Spengler, R. N. III Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat (Univ. of California Press, 2019).
Zhao, Z. Eastward spread of wheat into China—new data and new issues. Chin. Archaeol. 9, 1–9 (2009).
Li, X., Dodson, J., Zhou, X., Zhang, H. & Masutomoto, R. Early cultivated wheat and broadening of agriculture in Neolithic China. Holocene 17, 555–560 (2007).
Sherratt, A. in Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World (ed. Mair, V.) 30–61 (Hawaii Univ. Press, 2006).
Long, T. et al. The early history of wheat in China from 14C dating and Bayesian chronological modelling. Nat. Plants 4, 272–279 (2018).
Atahan, P. et al. Temporal trends in millet consumption in northern China. J. Archaeol. Sci. 50, 171–177 (2014).
Dodson, J. R. et al. Origin and spread of wheat in China. Quat. Sci. Rev. 72, 108–111 (2013).
Dong, G. et al. Prehistoric trans-continental cultural exchange in the Hexi Corridor, northwest China. Holocene 28, 621–628 (2017).
Liu, X. & Jones, M. K. Food globalisation in prehistory: top down or bottom up? Antiquity 88, 956–963 (2014).
Zhou, X., Li, X., Dodson, J. & Zhao, K. Rapid agricultural transformation in the prehistoric Hexi Corridor, China. Quat. Int. 426, 33–41 (2016).
Miller, N. F., Spengler, R. N. III & Frachetti, M. Millet cultivation across Eurasia: origins, spread, and the influence of seasonal climate. Holocene 26, 1566–1575 (2016).
Betts, A., Jia, P. W. & Dodson, J. The origins of wheat in China and potential pathways for its introduction: a review. Quat. Int. 348, 158–168 (2014).
Christian, D. Silk Roads or steppe roads? The Silk Roads in world history. J. World Hist. 11, 1–26 (2000).
Kuzmina, E. E. The Prehistory of the Silk Road: Encounters with Asia (Univ. Pennsylvania Press, 2008).
Frachetti, M. Multi-regional emergence of mobile pastoralism and non-uniform institutional complexity across eurasia. Curr. Anthropol. 53, 2–38 (2012).
Spengler, R. N. & Willcox, G. Archaeobotanical results from Sarazm, Tajikistan, an early Bronze age settlement on the edge: agriculture and exchange. Environ. Archaeol. 18, 211–221 (2013).
Masson, V. M. The first farmers in Turkmenia. Antiquity 35, 203–213 (1961).
Harris, D., Gosden, C. & Charles, M. Jeitun: recent excavations at an early Neolithic site in southern Turkmenistan. Proc. Prehist. Soc. 63, 423–442 (1996).
Spengler, R. N. Agriculture in the central Asian Bronze Age. J. World Prehist. 28, 215–253 (2015).
Spengler, R. et al. Early agriculture and crop transmission among Bronze Age mobile pastoralists of Central Eurasia. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 281, 20133382 (2014).
Liu, X. et al. The virtues of small grain size: potential pathways to a distinguishing feature of Asian wheats. Quat. Int. 426, 107–119 (2016).
Matuzeviciute, G. M., Abdykanova, A., Kume, S., Nishiaki, Y. & Tabaldiev, K. The effect of geographical margins on cereal grain size variation: case study for highlands of Kyrgyzstan. J. Archaeol. Sci. Rep. 20, 400–410 (2018).
de Barros Damgaard, P. et al. The first horse herders and the impact of early Bronze Age steppe expansions into Asia. Science 360, 7711 (2018).
de Barros Damgaard, P. et al. 137 ancient human genomes from across the Eurasian steppes. Nature 557, 369–374 (2018).
Haak, W. et al. Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe. Nature 522, 207–211 (2015).
Kohl, P. L. The Making of Bronze Age Eurasia: Cambridge World Archaeology (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).
Anthony, D. W. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (Princeton Univ. Press, 2007).
Rühl, L., Herbig, C. & Stobbe, A. Archaeobotanical analysis of plant use at Kamennyi Ambar: a Bronze Age fortified settlement of the Sintashta culture in the southern Trans-Urals steppe. Russ. Veg. Hist. Archaeobot. 24, 413–426 (2015).
Ryabogina, N. E. & Ivanov, S. N. Ancient agriculture in Western Siberia: problems of argumentation, paleoethnobotanic methods, and analysis of data. Archaeol. Ethnol. Anthropol. Eurasia 39, 96–106 (2011).
Frachetti, M. D., Spengler, R. N., Fritz, G. J. & Maryashev, A. N. Earliest direct evidence for broomcorn millet and wheat in the central Eurasian steppe region. Antiquity 84, 993–1010 (2010).
Zhang, J. et al. Cultivation strategies at the ancient Luanzagangzi settlement on the easternmost Eurasian steppe during the late Bronze Age. Veg. Hist. Archaeobot. 26, 505–512 (2017).
Zhao, K., Li, X., Zhou, X., Dodson, J. & Ji, M. Impact of agriculture on an oasis landscape during the late Holocene: palynological evidence from the Xintala site in Xinjiang, NW China. Quat. Int. 311, 81–86 (2013).
Li, C. et al. Ancient DNA analysis of desiccated wheat grains excavated from a Bronze Age cemetery in Xinjiang. J. Archaeol. Sci. 38, 115–119 (2011).
Possehl, G. L. The Middle Asian interaction sphere: trade and contact in the third millennium BC. Expedition 49, 40–42 (2004).
Boivin, N., Fuller, D. Q. & Crowther, A. Old World globalization and the Columbian exchange: comparison and contrast. World Archaeol. 44, 452–469 (2012).
Laufer, B. Sino-Iranica; Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in Ancient Iran, with special reference to the history of cultivated plants and products (Field Museum of Natural History, 1919).
Stevens, C. J. et al. Between China and South Asia: a Middle Asian corridor of crop dispersal and agricultural innovation in the Bronze Age. Holocene 26, 1541–1555 (2016).
Hunt, H. V. et al. Genetic diversity and phylogeography of broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum L.) across Eurasia. Mol. Ecol. 20, 4756–4771 (2011).
Motuzaite-Matuzeviciute, G., Telizhenko, S. & Jones, M. K. Archaeobotanical investigation of two Scythian-Sarmatian period pits in Eastern Ukraine: implications for floodplain cereal cultivation. J. Field Archaeol. 37, 51–61 (2012).
Cai, D. et al. Ancient DNA analysis of cattle remains from the Houyangwan location at the Shimao site, Shaanxi province. Archaeol. Cult. Relics 4, 122–127 (2016).
Hu, S. et al. Research on animal remains unearthed from Shimao site of Shenmu in Shaanxi province in 2012–2013. Archaeol. Cult. Relics 4, 109–121 (2016).
Petersen, G., Seberg, O., Yde, M. & Berthelsen, K. Phylogenetic relationships of Triticum and Aegilops and evidence for the origin of the A, B, and D genomes of common wheat (Triticum aestivum). Mol. Phylogenet. Evol. 39, 70–82 (2006).
Chen, F. H. et al. Agriculture facilitated permanent human occupation of the Tibetan Plateau after 3600 BP. Science 347, 248–250 (2015).
Mark, A. Peopling the Tibetan plateau: insights from archaeology. High Alt. Med. Biol. 12, 141–147 (2011).
Renssen, H., Seppä, H., Crosta, X., Goosse, H. & Roche, D. Global characterization of the Holocene thermal maximum. Quat. Sci. Rev. 48, 7–19 (2012).
Shakun, J. D. & Carlson, A. E. A global perspective on last glacial maximum to Holocene climate change. Quat. Sci. Rev. 29, 1801–1816 (2010).
Jia, P., Betts, A. & Wu, X. Prehistoric archaeology in the Zhunge’er (Junggar) Basin, Xinjiang, China. Eurasian Prehist. 6, 167–198 (2009).
Berger, A. L. Long-term variations of daily insolation and quaternary climatic changes. J. Atmos. Sci. 35, 2362–2367 (1978).
Wanner, H. et al. Mid-to late Holocene climate change: an overview. Quat. Sci. Rev. 27, 1791–1828 (2008).
Marcott, S. A., Shakun, J. D., Clark, P. U. & Mix, A. C. A reconstruction of regional and global temperature for the past 11,300 years. Science 339, 1198–1201 (2013).
DeMenocal, P. B. Cultural responses to climate change during the late Holocene. Science 292, 667–673 (2001).
Weiss, H. et al. The genesis and collapse of third millennium north Mesopotamian civilization. Science 261, 995–1004 (1993).
Xu, H., Zhou, K. E., Lan, J., Zhang, G. & Zhou, X. Arid Central Asia saw mid-Holocene drought. Geology 47, 255–258 (2019).
Feng, Z. et al. Vegetation changes and associated climatic changes in the southern Altai Mountains within China during the Holocene. Holocene 27, 1–11 (2016).
Chen, F. et al. A persistent Holocene wetting trend in arid central Asia, with wettest conditions in the late Holocene, revealed by multi-proxy analyses of loess–paleosol sequences in Xinjiang, China. Quat. Sci. Rev. 146, 134–146 (2016).
Tao, S. C. et al. Pollen-inferred vegetation and environmental changes since 16.7 ka BP at Balikun Lake, Xinjiang. Sci. Bull. 55, 2449–2457 (2010).
Ran, M., Zhang, C. & Feng, Z. Climatic and hydrological variations during the past 8000 years in northern Xinjiang of China and the associated mechanisms. Quat. Int. 358, 21–34 (2015).
Jiang, Q. F. et al. Holocene vegetational and climatic variation in westerly-dominated areas of Central Asia inferred from Sayram Lake in northern Xinjiang. Sci. China Earth Sci. 56, 339–353 (2013).
Wang, W. & Feng, Z. Holocene moisture evolution across the Mongolian Plateau and its surrounding areas: a synthesis of climatic records. Earth Sci. Rev. 122, 38–57 (2013).
Reimer, P. J. et al. IntCal13 and Marine13 radiocarbon age calibration curves 0–50,000 years cal BP. Radiocarbon 55, 1869–1887 (2013).
We thank research partners from Xinjiang Autonomous Regional Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and the Government of Jimunai County, Xinjiang, for permission to carry out this research. We also thank H. Wang and L. Lin from IVPP for their assistance with the laboratory work. We acknowledge financial support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant nos. 41572161 and 41730319), the Strategic Pilot Science and Technology Projects of Chinese Academy of Sciences (grant no. XDB26000000), the National Basic Research Programme of China, 973 Programme (grant no. 2015CB953800) and the Youth Innovation Promotion Association of Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information Nature Plants thanks Tengwen Long and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Zhou, X., Yu, J., Spengler, R.N. et al. 5,200-year-old cereal grains from the eastern Altai Mountains redate the trans-Eurasian crop exchange. Nat. Plants 6, 78–87 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-019-0581-y
New evidence for supplementary crop production, foddering and fuel use by Bronze Age transhumant pastoralists in the Tianshan Mountains
Scientific Reports (2021)
Natron glass beads reveal proto-Silk Road between the Mediterranean and China in the 1st millennium BCE
Scientific Reports (2021)
Two-season agriculture and irrigated rice during the Dian: radiocarbon dates and archaeobotanical remains from Dayingzhuang, Yunnan, Southwest China
Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences (2021)
Farming and multi-resource subsistence in the third and second millennium BC: archaeobotanical evidence from Karuo
Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences (2021)
Vegetation History and Archaeobotany (2021)