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Origins of Agriculture in Western Central Asia

Origins of Agriculture in Western Central Asia: An Environmental-Archaeological Study

David R. Harris
Eleni Asouti
Amy Bogaard
Michael Charles
James Conolly
Jennifer Coolidge
Keith Dobney
Chris Gosden
Jen Heathcote
Deborah Jaques
Mary Larkum
Susan Limbrey
John Meadows
Nathan Schlanger
Keith Wilkinson
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Origins of Agriculture in Western Central Asia
    Book Description:

    In Origins of Agriculture in Western Central Asia, archaeologist David R. Harris addresses questions of when, how, and why agriculture and settled village life began east of the Caspian Sea. The book describes and assesses evidence from archaeological investigations in Turkmenistan and adjacent parts of Iran, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan in relation to present and past environmental conditions and genetic and archaeological data on the ancestry of the crops and domestic animals of the Neolithic period. It includes accounts of previous research on the prehistoric archaeology of the region and reports the results of a recent environmental-archaeological project undertaken by British, Russian, and Turkmen archaeologists in Turkmenistan, principally at the early Neolithic site of Jeitun (Djeitun) on the southern edge of the Karakum desert. This project has demonstrated unequivocally that agropastoralists who cultivated barley and wheat, raised goats and sheep, hunted wild animals, made stone tools and pottery, and lived in small mudbrick settlements were present in southern Turkmenistan by 7,000 years ago (c. 6,000 BCE calibrated), where they came into contact with hunter-gatherers of the "Keltiminar Culture." It is possible that barley and goats were domesticated locally, but the available archaeological and genetic evidence leads to the conclusion that all or most of the elements of the Neolithic "Jeitun Culture" spread to the region from farther west by a process of demic or cultural diffusion that broadly parallels the spread of Neolithic agropastoralism from southwest Asia into Europe. By synthesizing for the first time what is currently known about the origins of agriculture in a large part of Central Asia, between the more fully investigated regions of southwest Asia and China, this book makes a unique contribution to the worldwide literature on transitions from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

    eISBN: 978-1-934536-51-3
    Subjects: Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. vii-ix)
  4. Tables
    (pp. x-x)
  5. Contributors
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-2)

    The term “western Central Asia” denotes the geographical scope of this book, but how much of the vast Central Asian arid zone it encompasses is not self-evident. In English usage Central Asia comprises the entire area of deserts, plateaus, and mountains from the Caspian Sea through the Karakum, Kyzylkum, Takla Makan, and Gobi deserts to Mongolia and northwest China, whereas Russian authors have traditionally divided the area into a western sector, from the Caspian to the western Tien Shan mountains, known as Middle Asia, and an eastern sector from the eastern Tien Shan to Mongolia and northwest China, referred to...

  8. PART I: Physical Environment and Ecology

    • 1 The Present Environment
      (pp. 5-18)

      The purpose of this chapter is to set the scene for those that follow by describing the main features of the physiography, climate, vegetation, and animal life of western Central Asia.

      The principal features of the physical geography of Turkmenistan and the neighboring parts of Iran, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan are shown in Figures 1.1 and 1.2. The dominant structural contrast is between the high mountains and plateaus that enclose the region in the south, and the extensive lowlands of the Karakum and Kyzylkum deserts that occupy the central area. The southern highlands are part of the great chain of mountains...

    • 2 Environmental Changes in the Pleistocene and Holocene
      (pp. 19-26)

      Having outlined the present physical environment of western Central Asia, and in order to make sound inferences about prehistoric settlement and subsistence in the region, we need next to consider environmental changes that occurred during the Pleistocene and Holocene, the two epochs of the Quaternary period.¹ At present there is little local evidence available of such changes, with the exception of data derived from two main sources: studies of the palaeohydrology of the Caspian and Aral Sea basins, and of palaeosol (buried soil) sequences in the Tajik-Afghan basin. These studies provide the basis for much of the following description of...

    • 3 The Local Environment of Jeitun
      (pp. 27-34)
      Susan Limbrey

      The Jeitun mound lies at the junction of the Kopetdag piedmont and the Karakum desert in an area of small sand hills just north of a major dune ridge which, in this area, forms the southern edge of the desert. Looking south from the site, the steep mountain front of the Kopetdag range is clearly visible and to the east the desert extends past the terminal fans of the Tedzhen and Murghab rivers to the valley of the Amudarya, some 600 km away. By the 1990s, extensive cultivation of grapevines, irrigated with water brought from the Amudarya by the Karakum...

    • 4 The Local Environment of the Bolshoi Balkhan Sites
      (pp. 35-40)
      Jen Heathcote

      Close to the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea in western Turkmenistan, the Bolshoi Balkhan massif rises to an altitude of just over 1,880 m. It is an isolated outlier of the Kopetdag mountain system and consists predominantly of a core of Jurassic limestones and an outer belt of Cretaceous limestones, surrounded by a piedmont zone of varying width formed by the coalescence of alluvial fans. Its southern flank consists of a steep escarpment penetrated by canyons and ravines cut by intermittently flowing streams that have built, and dissected, a series of fans at the foot of the escarpment, thus...

  9. PART II: Prehistoric Archaeology

    • 5 History of Archaeological Research
      (pp. 43-52)
      Jennifer Coolidge

      The prehistory of western Central Asia remained almost entirely unknown until after the Russian conquest of most of the region in the second half of the 19th century. Archaeological research soon followed, and by the 1880s investigations of prehistoric sites were underway. During the Soviet era systematic research on the prehistoric archaeology of Soviet Central Asia began, and, by means of a series of field campaigns of survey and excavation, a spatial framework and a chronological sequence for the prehistoric past of Turkmenistan and the other Central Asian republics were established. Great advances in knowledge were made, particularly after the...

    • 6 The Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods: Sites, Sequences, and Subsistence
      (pp. 53-70)
      Jennifer Coolidge

      The main purpose of this chapter is to provide a summary account of the principal Mesolithic and Neolithic sites, sequences, and subsistence economies of Turkmenistan and adjacent parts of Uzbekistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, but first we review briefly the Palaeolithic foundations of the prehistory of western Central Asia as a whole.

      At present, most of the evidence of human populations in western Central Asia during the Palaeolithic comes from the more mountainous areas in northern Afghanistan, southern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kirgizstan, although there is also some evidence from lowland areas in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan (Dennell 2009; Moloney, Olsen, and Voloshin...

  10. PART III: Neolithic Crop Plants and Domestic Animals

    • 7 Areas of Origin of the Crops and Domestic Animals
      (pp. 73-92)

      A fundamental part of this enquiry into the transition from foraging to farming in western Central Asia is to try to determine whether agriculture began there independently, or whether the new way of life was introduced—wholly or in part—from elsewhere. One approach to this question is to ask whether any of the crops and domestic animals identified in the organic remains recovered at Jeitun and other early sites could have been domesticated locally from wild progenitors native to the region. To answer that question requires not only knowledge of the present physical environment and of environmental changes during...

  11. PART IV: Archaeological-Environmental Investigations in Turkmenistan 1989–98

    • 8 Jeitun, the Sumbar and Chandyr Valleys, and the Bolshoi Balkhan Region: Excavation and Survey
      (pp. 95-118)
      Chris Gosden

      As explained in the Preface, the initial aim of our research in Turkmenistan was to build on the earlier work of the Russian and Turkmen archaeologists who discovered and described the Neolithic Jeitun Culture of the Kopetdag piedmont zone by undertaking archaeological-environmental investigations at the type site of Jeitun: the earliest known agricultural settlement in western Central Asia. As the project developed through the 1990s, its scope expanded to include exploratory survey and excavation in two other regions—the middle Sumbar and Chandyr valleys, and the Bolshoi Balkhan massif—which we hoped might help to elucidate the question of how...

    • 9 Jeitun: Dating and Analysis of Excavated Materials
      (pp. 119-196)
      Chris Gosden, John Meadows, Susan Limbrey, Keith Wilkinson, Mary Larkum, Michael Charles, Amy Bogaard, Eleni Asouti, David Harris, Keith Dobney, Deborah Jaques, James Conolly and Jennifer Coolidge

      In this chapter, the materials excavated and sampled at Jeitun by the British team are described and the results of their analyses are presented. These reports combine presentation of technical data (some of which is contained in appendices) with interpretation of the results, and they form the basis for the conclusions about the nature of the site and the history of its occupation that are summarized at the end of the chapter. The radiocarbon chronology that we established for Jeitun is described first, followed by sections on sediments and soils, plant and animal remains, stone tools, and pottery.

      Prior to...

    • 10 The Bolshoi Balkhan Sites: Analysis of Excavated Materials
      (pp. 197-208)
      Michael Charles, Eleni Asouti, Keith Dobney, Deborah Jaques, James Conolly, Nathan Schlanger and Jennifer Coolidge

      In this chapter, the materials excavated and sampled by the British team in 1997 at the Dam Dam Cheshme rockshelters (DDC 1, 2, and 3) in the Bolshoi Balkhan massif are described. G. E. Markov carried out extensive excavations at the two principal sites, DDC 1 and 2, in the 1960s, and the excavations we undertook there during our brief field season yielded only small amounts of plant, animal, lithic, and ceramic material. The results of our limited excavations at the three rockshelters are summarized below in Sections 10.1–10.5 in which analyses of the charred seeds, wood charcoal, animal...

  12. PART V: Synthesis and Conclusions

    • 11 Neolithic Settlement and Subsistence
      (pp. 211-224)

      The aim of this and the final chapter is to draw together from the varied evidence already presented general conclusions, at local and regional scales, about the nature of the Jeitun settlement and how it and other agro-pastoral settlements became established in western Central Asia during the Neolithic. Although in many areas east of the Caspian there is as yet little direct, firmly dated bioarchaeological evidence of crops and domestic animals, sufficient is now known about Neolithic settlement and subsistence in Turkmenistan and adjacent areas to enable a series of at least tentative conclusions to be presented. In this chapter...

    • 12 The Beginnings of Agriculture in Western Central Asia
      (pp. 225-236)

      Discussions of agricultural origins in different parts of the world have frequently been framed in terms of four questions: where, when, how, and why. The first two questions are distinct from each other and more amenable to separate treatment than the third and fourth which, although apparently distinct, are so interwoven as to make separate analysis difficult. In the preceding chapters, the where and when questions have been addressed and answered in detail, as far as presently available evidence allows. The purpose of this final chapter is therefore to return to the fundamental aim of this study: to advance understanding...

  13. Appendices

    • Appendix 3.1: Soil/Sediment Profiles in the Vicinity of Jeitun
      (pp. 237-238)
      Susan Limbrey
    • Appendices 8.1–8.5
      (pp. 239-243)
      Chris Gosden
    • Appendices 9.1–9.2
      (pp. 244-249)
      Susan Limbrey
    • Appendices 9.3–9.5
      (pp. 250-255)
      Mary Larkum
    • Appendix 9.6: Jeitun: Summary Table of the Archaeobotanical Composition of the Samples (only wild plant types occurring in five or more samples are included)
      (pp. 256-259)
      Michael Charles and Amy Bogaard
    • Appendices 9.7–9.10
      (pp. 260-265)
      Keith Dobney and Deborah Jaques
    • Appendix 9.11: Jeitun: The 1994 Lithic Assemblage
      (pp. 266-268)
      James Conolly
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 269-296)
  15. Author Note
    (pp. 297-298)
  16. Index
    (pp. 299-304)