Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

5,200-year-old cereal grains from the eastern Altai Mountains redate the trans-Eurasian crop exchange

Abstract

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Proposed pathways of cultural exchange at around 5,000–4,000 cal bp; distribution of prehistoric culture groups across mainland Eurasia and early agricultural sites mentioned in the text (red dots).
Fig. 2: Stratigraphy and setting of the Tangtian Cave.
Fig. 3: Stratigraphic chart showing the results of a compositional analysis of charred seeds and fruit parts and macroscopic charcoal fragments from Tongtian Cave.
Fig. 4: Charred seeds from Tontiandong.
Fig. 5: Pollen diagram and the results of CONISS analysis of the transit time distribution (TTD)-0505 section from Tongtian Cave.
Fig. 6: Compilation of records of biotic diversity, vertical vegetation change, climatic shifts and human activity for the study area starting in the middle Holocene.

Data availability

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.

References

  1. 1.

    Jones, M. et al. Food globalization in prehistory. World Archaeol. 43, 665–675 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Spengler, R. N. III Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat (Univ. of California Press, 2019).

  4. 4.

    Zhao, Z. Eastward spread of wheat into China—new data and new issues. Chin. Archaeol. 9, 1–9 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Sherratt, A. in Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World (ed. Mair, V.) 30–61 (Hawaii Univ. Press, 2006).

  7. 7.

    Long, T. et al. The early history of wheat in China from 14C dating and Bayesian chronological modelling. Nat. Plants 4, 272–279 (2018).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Atahan, P. et al. Temporal trends in millet consumption in northern China. J. Archaeol. Sci. 50, 171–177 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Dodson, J. R. et al. Origin and spread of wheat in China. Quat. Sci. Rev. 72, 108–111 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Dong, G. et al. Prehistoric trans-continental cultural exchange in the Hexi Corridor, northwest China. Holocene 28, 621–628 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Liu, X. & Jones, M. K. Food globalisation in prehistory: top down or bottom up? Antiquity 88, 956–963 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Zhou, X., Li, X., Dodson, J. & Zhao, K. Rapid agricultural transformation in the prehistoric Hexi Corridor, China. Quat. Int. 426, 33–41 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Christian, D. Silk Roads or steppe roads? The Silk Roads in world history. J. World Hist. 11, 1–26 (2000).

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Kuzmina, E. E. The Prehistory of the Silk Road: Encounters with Asia (Univ. Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

  17. 17.

    Frachetti, M. Multi-regional emergence of mobile pastoralism and non-uniform institutional complexity across eurasia. Curr. Anthropol. 53, 2–38 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Masson, V. M. The first farmers in Turkmenia. Antiquity 35, 203–213 (1961).

    Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Harris, D., Gosden, C. & Charles, M. Jeitun: recent excavations at an early Neolithic site in southern Turkmenistan. Proc. Prehist. Soc. 63, 423–442 (1996).

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Spengler, R. N. Agriculture in the central Asian Bronze Age. J. World Prehist. 28, 215–253 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    de Barros Damgaard, P. et al. 137 ancient human genomes from across the Eurasian steppes. Nature 557, 369–374 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Haak, W. et al. Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe. Nature 522, 207–211 (2015).

    CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Kohl, P. L. The Making of Bronze Age Eurasia: Cambridge World Archaeology (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

  29. 29.

    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).

  30. 30.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    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).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Possehl, G. L. The Middle Asian interaction sphere: trade and contact in the third millennium BC. Expedition 49, 40–42 (2004).

    Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Boivin, N., Fuller, D. Q. & Crowther, A. Old World globalization and the Columbian exchange: comparison and contrast. World Archaeol. 44, 452–469 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    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).

  39. 39.

    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).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Hunt, H. V. et al. Genetic diversity and phylogeography of broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum L.) across Eurasia. Mol. Ecol. 20, 4756–4771 (2011).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    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).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Chen, F. H. et al. Agriculture facilitated permanent human occupation of the Tibetan Plateau after 3600 BP. Science 347, 248–250 (2015).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Mark, A. Peopling the Tibetan plateau: insights from archaeology. High Alt. Med. Biol. 12, 141–147 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Renssen, H., Seppä, H., Crosta, X., Goosse, H. & Roche, D. Global characterization of the Holocene thermal maximum. Quat. Sci. Rev. 48, 7–19 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Shakun, J. D. & Carlson, A. E. A global perspective on last glacial maximum to Holocene climate change. Quat. Sci. Rev. 29, 1801–1816 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Jia, P., Betts, A. & Wu, X. Prehistoric archaeology in the Zhunge’er (Junggar) Basin, Xinjiang, China. Eurasian Prehist. 6, 167–198 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Berger, A. L. Long-term variations of daily insolation and quaternary climatic changes. J. Atmos. Sci. 35, 2362–2367 (1978).

    Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Wanner, H. et al. Mid-to late Holocene climate change: an overview. Quat. Sci. Rev. 27, 1791–1828 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    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).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    DeMenocal, P. B. Cultural responses to climate change during the late Holocene. Science 292, 667–673 (2001).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Weiss, H. et al. The genesis and collapse of third millennium north Mesopotamian civilization. Science 261, 995–1004 (1993).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  55. 55.

    Xu, H., Zhou, K. E., Lan, J., Zhang, G. & Zhou, X. Arid Central Asia saw mid-Holocene drought. Geology 47, 255–258 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  56. 56.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  58. 58.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  59. 59.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  60. 60.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  61. 61.

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  62. 62.

    Reimer, P. J. et al. IntCal13 and Marine13 radiocarbon age calibration curves 0–50,000 years cal BP. Radiocarbon 55, 1869–1887 (2013).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

X.Q.L., X.Y.Z. and J.J.Y. obtained funding and conducted the excavation. K.L.Z. conducted and calibrated carbon-14 dating. J.J.Y. analysed the stone artefacts and pottery. Y.G.B., Q.J.Y., P.W.J. and J.Y.G. conducted geoarchaeological investigations and assisted with in-field excavation processing. X.Y.Z. identified and analysed the charred seeds. H.S. identified the macroscopic charcoal. J.C.L. and G.H.C. analysed the regional palaeoenvironment and created the figures. X.Y.Z. and R.N.S. organized and wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Robert Nicholas Spengler or Xiaoqiang Li.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

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.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–5, Tables 1 and 2, and Text 1 and 2.

Reporting Summary

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

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

Download citation

Further reading

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing