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Meanwhile in Central Asia . .. Another Neolithic

Central Asia consists of a series of ecological zones stretching across the Eurasian continent. The tundra and taiga of the far north give way to forest-steppe and then to steppes, which in turn gradually merge into deserts in the mid latitudes. The climate is extreme continental, with intensely cold winters and unbearably hot summers. High mountains, usually in ranges oriented east-west, dominate the distant landscapes. A particularly high knot extends from Tibet north through the Pamirs and Tianshan to the Altai; many peaks rise well over 20,000 feet. At the west and east ends, in Kazakhstan and China respectively, the steppes grade into farming areas. The deserts contain many linear oases, some very large, along the rivers that drain the high mountains. These linear oases have been the seats of great civilizations for the last two to two and a half millennia.

Westerners tend to imagine a vast grassland stretching for thousands of miles. The truth is more complex. The vast grasslands are in the northern, northwestern, and northeastern borderlands of Central Asia proper and are broken by low mountain ranges and rivers. The vast empty spaces without mountains, lakes, or rivers occupy almost all of Kazakhstan—the true steppe nation—and a great deal of Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, as well as neighboring countries. These areas are much drier, ranging from extremely dry grassland to waterless desert. Outside Kazakhstan and northern Turkmenistan, however, they are broken at fairly frequent intervals by large river or lake valleys that drain the snow ranges to the south and east. These valleys permit intensive agriculture.

Thus, the true picture of Central Asia is a rather coarse-grained mosaic. In the north and in the many mountain valleys and slopes of the east and south, there is good grazing, and here the famous nomads raised stock (Khazanov 1984; Vainstein 1980). In the river valleys, which are concentrated in the south, large-scale intensive agriculture is practiced today. An interesting feature of this agriculture throughout history, but apparently not in prehistoric times, is the extreme importance of tree and vine cropping. Apricots, mulberries, grapes, melons, almonds (in the far south of the region—they cannot take cold), and other such crops have been staple foods, not just minor dessert items. This sort of cultivation has not fared well in recent decades (and no doubt at many times in the past), due to escalating wars and scorched-earth policies; trees do not regrow fast enough.

Civilization flourished here, especially after 500 ВСЕ, reaching a climax in the centuries of the Silk Road. In between are vast deserts, almost worthless, providing major barriers to travel. The Takla Makan Desert of Chinese Central Asia is one of the worlds driest, with virtually no rain. Major travel routes followed the rivers whenever possible, thus keeping relatively close to the southern fringes of the region. There was, however, also a great deal of contact across the northern approaches, where grassland and forest-steppe permitted nomadic and forest-based livelihood. North of that, subarctic forest eventually became used for specialized reindeer herding.

Agriculture spread to the western steppe-margins very early. At the opposite end of the steppes from China, the Tripolye and Cucuteni cultures, in modern Ukraine and Romania, built enormous towns with extremely elaborate and beautiful ceramics, at the same time as the Ubaid culture was developing rapidly toward urbanism in the Near East: roughly 5500-3000 ВСЕ (Anthony 2007; Kohl 2007). The huge Tripolye and Cucuteni sites are not ancestral to any modern culture; they apparently were eclipsed by Indo-Europeans. They grew "emmer, einkorn, bread wheat, barley, peas, vetch, lentils, sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, buckwheat, millet (P. miliaceum), and both wild-type and domestic grapes" (Kohl 2007: 44). The Yamnaya cultural horizon, occurring in the same general area, may have involved early Indo-Europeans (Anthony 2007). Cities and writing arose in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3200 ВСЕ, indirectly influencing the steppes through trade.

Meanwhile, the first indications of contact with China are visible: panic millet turned up in Europe by 4000 ВСЕ and was common by 5500 in the Linearband-keramik and other cultures (Bellwood 2005: 21). (The Linearband-keramik, or LBK, archaeological culture was the first agricultural manifestation in most of central Europe; it spread very rapidly from the east around 5500 ВСЕ.) Millet probably spread from China, though domestication in Central Asia is also possible. It was a crop in Central Asia by 2200 (Frachetti 2012; Frachetti et al. 2010). A glass bead from the Near East at 2900 shows early contact in the other direction (Anthony 2007: 354).

However, it seems likely that there were far earlier contacts between East and West. Pottery spread through Siberia to the West. The earliest European pottery looks very much like the much earlier Chinese ware. Later, the similarities in shape, color, size, and design between Tripolye, early Mesopotamian, and Yangshao pottery styles are so striking that they have long been noted (e.g., Andersson 1934, 1943). While denied by excessively cautious scholars who note slight differences in the designs, these similarities are so numerous, striking, and close that to ignore them is pedantic.

Statuettes associated with trees and fertility, and stylistically close to Near Eastern analogues, appear around 3000 ВСЕ. They may be connected with the cult of sacred trees that endures in Central Asia in spite of Islamic puritanism; ten-foot-thick plane trees, elms that ooze healing sap, and other wonderful trees are frequent and widely distributed there (Gorshunova 2012). Sacred trees are important to Uralic and Altaic peoples and to some settled Iranic-speakers. The cult is clearly continuous with Chinese reverence for trees; the same ideas and behaviors are visible.

Agriculture flourishes in Ukraine and in river valleys and montane out-wash fans throughout inner Asia, but full steppe conditions are impossible for agriculture. They are, however, ideal for herding the hardier kinds of stock: sheep, goats, and horses. The riverine zones along the Tarim, Syr Darya, Amu Darya, and other rivers were once among the most agriculturally productive tracts of land on earth—grain, forage crops, fruit trees, vegetables, and other crops (including early cotton) flourished. In recent decades, however, pollution, salt buildup in the soil, monocropping (especially cotton), urban sprawl, and other features of extremely bad land management have ruined much of the land.

The existence of extremely rich zones near vast tracts of nomadic herding country was an invitation for trouble. The steppe nomads could raise huge mobile forces and descend on the cities and farms, especially when warm and moist climatic periods allowed the nomads to increase both human and animal populations. Then the nomad leaders settle in the cities, succumb to luxury, lose their martial ability, and the whole cycle starts over again—as pointed out by the great Arab social scientist Ibn Khaldun in the fourteenth century.

This sequence is complicated by the fact that steppe nomads were never independent of settled people (Barfield 1989; Khazanov 1984). They required grain to supplement the products of their herds. They produced felt and wool goods but depended on settled people for other fabrics. They needed more metal than they could produce themselves. Metal goods—especially gold— became major wealth and show items. (Stock-herders who could produce all their own food and everyday goods existed in Arabia and Africa, but could not do so in Central Asia, where at least some grain, clothing, metal, and the like had to be bought.)

At the margins of the steppes, farming people encroached during warmer, moister periods. Since these are also the periods when steppe populations were increasing, tensions naturally arose. The infamous "barbarians" that harassed the Roman Empire rode out during such a time: the favorable climatic period in the early centuries of the Common Era. So did Mongol hordes during the Medieval Warm Period a few centuries later. Cold periods, by contrast, were deadly. Late winter and early spring storms dropped deep snow or, worse, ice over the young grass, starving the herds just when they needed feed the most. The old myth that "droughts" forced the nomads out on raids is long dead; droughts kept the nomads at home, scrabbling hard to survive, with no strength to raid. It was good times that made them raiders.

The steppe world began to take shape around 4000 ВСЕ with the coming of livestock to Central Asia. Sheep and goats slowly spread from their homes in the hospitable, pleasant Near East out onto the desolate, cold steppe and desert lands. The real dawn of steppe power, however, was the domestication of the horse. It apparently took place around 3500 ВСЕ in what is now Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Horses are first known as tamed livestock from the Botai culture of the Ukraine area, around 3500-3000 (not 4000, as previously reported). Horses were apparently domesticated only once, though herds recruited mares from local wild populations all over Eurasia (Achilli et al. 2012). The first secure evidence comes from the Botai culture in Kazakhstan (Anthony 2007; Frachetti 2008, 2012; Levine et al. 2003). The Botai people depended almost exclusively on horses for animal protein—not just the meat (of which they ate an enormous amount) but also the milk, as shown by residues in pots. Milking horses implies domestication.

No one knows when riding started—claims of bit wear on ancient horse teeth have not held up—but presumably it entered the picture about this time. By 3000 ВСЕ, mounted riders seem to have been ranging widely over the steppes, and by 2000 the war chariot was a major part of warfare as far afield as the Near East. Horses and war chariots reached China around 1500. The Indo-Europeans were among those who took advantage of the horse and of livestock nomadism in general to radiate in all directions and build up large populations. It is tempting to associate the Botai with them, but the Botai are farther east than the presumed IE center in Ukraine. Perhaps the Indo-Europeans were already in the east, or perhaps the Botai people were ancestral Uralic or Altaic groups.

Horses were in China by the middle Shang Dynasty, 1400-1500 (Harris 2010: 82; Lawler 2009), but, so far, are not reported earlier. China is not good horse country; there is little good grazing, and, in historic times, there was little room to grow fodder. Much of Chinas lands are deficient in selenium, which horses need (May 2012). China always obtained its best horses from the steppes.

Local conditions—ecological and cultural—led to different emphases in different areas of China and Central Asia: sheep and goats dominated widely, and there were even cattle specialists in some relatively favorable areas, but the all-importance of the horse in Kazakhstan was slow to change (Frachetti 2012). The western, central, eastern, montane, and far eastern steppes all had different histories, political as well as ecological; nearness to great civilizations, isolation by mountain ranges, and ease of mobility all mattered.

When the steppe peoples entered Chinese history, their way of life was already ancient. It was, however, far more than nomadic herding. Central Asia, especially at the western and eastern ends, was a complex intermingling of steppe nomads, seminomadic groups with varying degrees of agriculture, settled riverine farmers using intensive irrigation, and dry-farmers taking advantage of every wet period to extend farming far out into dry lands—as pointed out by scholars such as Owen Lattimore (1940) long ago and many others since (e.g., Barfield 1989,1993; Barthold 1968).

By 1500 ВСЕ there were substantial farming settlements in the Zhungeer (Junggar, Dzungarian) Basin, in what is now far northwest China. The people dry-farmed wheat, barley (naked barley was prominent), and foxtail millet. They had sophisticated pottery, similar to that from other parts of eastern Central Asia at the time (P. Jia et al. 2011) but quite different from the wares of China—at that time just entering the Shang Dynasty. No hints of their ethnic affiliation exist. The area is traditionally a haunt of "nomads," but these people were not nomadic. The widespread occurrence of early intensive farming in Central Asia, now established, has changed some historical speculation.

Other high cultures with distinctive art and architecture have been discovered in Central Asia (see Lawler 2009 for a quick overview). They share many broad patterns with the better-known early cultures of the Yellow River plain but are still distinctive. Data on these societies are only beginning to appear, and the instability of the region makes excavation difficult at best.

The early Chinese and Roman historians shared a tendency to overstate the nomadism and the dependence on stock as a way of differentiating the "Huns" and "Xiongnu" and other "barbarians" from "civilized" folk. In fact, every major stable Central Asian state or conquering horde had to depend on agriculture for a great deal of its food, clothing, and wealth (cf. Honeychurch and Amartuvshin 2006). The Xiongnu, for instance, held vast areas that were very dry but that were and are farmed, as well as several major riverine oasis-strips.

The Central Asian cultures have produced many mummies, preserved by the dry, cold climate. They show that most of the people there were of West Asian (some perhaps even European) background. Current genetic theory holds that the East Asian peoples are derived largely from groups that moved up very slowly from Southeast Asia. So their late radiation into Central Asia led to a meeting of quite different stocks when they encountered Caucasians spreading through Central Asia from the west. Many of the Central Asian mummy-wrapping textiles are wool woven in patterns similar to European ones; some are strikingly similar to Scottish plaids (Barber 1999; J. Mallory and Mair 2000). The earliest mummies date to 1800-1500 ВСЕ. These people certainly include the ancestors of the Tocharians. (The Tocharoi of Greek history were in northern Afghanistan, whereas the people discussed here, the Twghry, occupied what is now Xinjiang. Tocharoi is a very reasonable Greek spelling of Twghry, so the mistake may simply be a minor misplacement by the Greek writers. See Hansen 2012: 73.) At least three Tocharian languages were spoken in this area in early historic times. The better known ones are usually called Tocharian A and B, but the more useful names Kuchean and Agnean are coming into use (Hansen 2012: 74). They are Indo-European, close enough to eastern European languages that their word for "fish" was "lox"! (Phonetically laks, lakse, or laksi.) And a modern Uyghur bread resembles the bagel (C. Robinson 1998). The Uyghur, a Turkic people, absorbed the Tocharians in early medieval times. Also well represented are people related to known Iranic groups. Probably most of the people of the ancient Tarim Basin and neighboring areas were Indo-Iranian. Turkic and Mongol speakers probably were established at the northern fringes.

The food attested was largely wheat and barley, with sheep, goats, cattle, horses, Bactrian camels, donkeys, and probably yaks to provide variety of dairy and meat stock. Some of the mummies, including the spectacular Beauty of Xiaohe (1800-1500 ВСЕ), were buried with wheat grains; she also has a basket and winnowing fan to use in the afterlife. She was blonde and probably blue-eyed and came with mummified lice. More significant is the fact that she was buried with very European-looking fabrics, including woven wool goods that look like modern Scottish or northern European woolens. A baby was buried at about the same time, with similarly European clothing and a sheep-nipple baby bottle and goat-horn drinking cup. By Han times, grapes, apricots, melons, and other fruit were established. Apricots and wild grapes are probably native to the area, and apples have their home not far off in the mountains of Kazakhstan.

Horses and chariots had not entered the picture yet in eastern Central Asia, although they were established by this time in the western steppes. The delay is strange. If, as seems virtually certain, the Indo-Europeans and specifically the Indo-Aryans were in at the birth of horse-and-chariot culture, why were these not found among the Caucasians of east-central Asia? The grave goods and appearance of the mummies seem almost impossible to explain if they were not Indo-Europeans. Possibly the horse riders all moved south and west, to where there was more booty, leaving the East to foot travelers.

Tibet may have been settled by 30,000 years ago, though evidence is shaky. In any case, people entering around 6,000 years ago indicate the coming of agriculture and presumably animal husbandry (Brantingham and Xing 2006), at least to the lower margins of Tibet; the highlands were only seasonally occupied at best until somewhat later. There and in Central Asia, once again, complex cultures flourished by 1500-2000 ВСЕ or earlier.

Soviet archaeological practice, including some of the best Soviet work, came to China in the early Communist period, before Mao broke with the USSR (Zhang Liangren 2011 gives a very detailed, and favorable, analysis of this phase). Then, after a long hiatus, Russian archaeology in Central Asia is now so important and pervasive that Chinese archaeologists are once again following Russian work closely. American and European influences dominated before 1949 (with some unfortunate colonialism intruding; Zhang Liangren 2011) and again in the 1980s and 1990s, under much more cooperative circumstances. A great deal of ongoing work is now done by mixed-national teams.

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