Archaeologists from the University of Sydney have reconstructed the ancient seasonal migration routes of Bronze Age shepherds in Xinjiang, northwest China.
Published in the high-level journal PLOS ONE, their research is the result of an innovative methodology. To determine the snow cover and vegetation cycles, essential to the survival of Bronze Age peoples and their herds, they examined both satellite imagery and archaeological evidence, as well as interviews with shepherds. modern.
Together with researchers from the Institute of Archeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, they then used this data to create a model of how the landscape was used over 3,500 years ago.
“This detailed model of how people in the Bronze Age capitalized on the resources of their environment greatly helps in understanding the prehistoric Silk Road,” said lead author Dr Peter Jia.
“For example, our ethnographic studies – interviews with local breeders – explained why certain locations were and still are chosen over the seasons: for the presence of early and late grass, optimal grazing potential in summer and the lack of snow cover in winter.
“Analysis of satellite imagery, as well as the results of archaeological surveys and excavations, have enabled us to test these anecdotal accounts and prove their accuracy.
Study co-author Professor Alison Betts added, “From previous archaeological evidence, it was difficult to determine how Bronze Age pastors adapted to life in Xinjiang and used the landscape in which they settled.
“Now we have a new, validated method of determining the season that people have stayed in a location.”
Dangers in the steppe: why seasonal migration matters
The Eurasian steppe / mountain area is a hostile environment. The main adaptation to this barren landscape occurred during the Bronze Age with the introduction of domesticated animals. But even today it remains a place with inherent dangers to people’s livelihoods. Too much snow in winter and the animals cannot find enough food, dying by the hundreds in what locals call a “white disaster”. Too little snow and there is not enough water for humans and animals, the dreaded “black catastrophe”. Landscape management through seasonal migration is essential for the survival and maintenance of the herd-based economic system.
The strength of the study lies in its interdisciplinary approach, combining cutting-edge satellite technology with ethnographic and archaeological fieldwork.
Establishing growth cycles for pasture vegetation and estimating snow depth using satellite imagery allowed researchers to assess the suitability of different parts of the mountains for herding. in different seasons. Comparing this data with the accounts of local Mongolian and Kazakh pastors, they found that they closely matched.
“Archeology is one of the few fields that provides insight into how humans have interacted with the environment in the past,” said co-author Dr Gino Caspari.
“With the exacerbation of environmental conditions around the world, it is crucial to analyze this story.
“This task requires us to connect academic disciplines and cooperate internationally. Our study is a good example.”