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


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.

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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.


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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




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.

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Correspondence to Robert Nicholas Spengler or Xiaoqiang Li.

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Peer review information Nature Plants thanks Tengwen Long and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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

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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).

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