22 June 2012 – This is one of my earliest posts and it shows. What I’ve said here seems to conflate about 4000 years worth of history, which I now think is silly. I suspect Middle Eastern and Chinese developments were unlikely to be so easily connected. The development of turquoise mining in central Asia perhaps means that the western end of the routes now called the Silk Road probably came into existence earlier than 7000BC. As for the Chinese end, this must have been open to western influence from perhaps 3000BC, with ideas such as copper spreading along this route. This is perhaps material for a different post. Either way, make what you will of it.
31 Dec 2012 – Actually I think that even what I’ve said above seems too generous. It is apparent that Chinese influence (e.g. panicum millet) does not head west along the silk road until around 2000 BC, and this also matched the earliest dates for wheat agriculture in the Tarim Basin. This probably means that the Silk Road did not open as a route for transfer of ideas and cultivars until around 2000 BC. The spread of copper use to China is more likely to have been through the steppe, further to the north, as argued by so many others.
Why does the Silk Road end in sites of early farming, and what about Mehrgarh?
The red line I’ve drawn above on the map above is Silk Road. It’s not perfect but it will do. The Silk Road was an avenue of trade between east and west for several thousand years, perhaps from as early as the second millennium.
People did not travel the length of the Silk Road until medieval times. Before that small movements of people, trading as they went, allowed the transportation of objects over much greater distances.
Centres of origin for farming
The green patch at the Silk Road’s west end is what’s known as the Fertile Crescent. It is the site of the first farming evidence in the world from about 8000 BC. In this location have been found the first domesticated barley, wheat and peas, as well as sheep and goats.
The green patches at the Silk Road’s east end are the sites of the first farming in China, dating to at least 7000 BC. Here people farmed millet (M) and rice (R) together with other crops and animals. The eastern end of the Silk Route, the Hexi Corridor, runs right into the area of ancient millet farming.
There seem to be no animals and plants shared between the two green areas during these early experiments in farming.
The brown dots and areas represent other sites of early, possibly secondary farming. Aq Kupruk may be the location of a highly disputed animal domestication event. However, even if this early domestication is wrong, Aq Kupruk is one of three sites of the earliest known farming settlements away from the farming homelands of China and the Fertile Crescent. The early farming cultures around Jeitun and Aq Kupruk definitely date to at least the 6th millennium BC and Merhgarh back to the 8th millennium.
It is interesting to note that most of these areas of early farming (with the notable exception of Mehrgarh), lie on or near the Silk Road.
However, the problem with superimposing this early farming data on the Silk Road is that the Silk Road is not thought to have existed for another few thousand years.
What does this mean then?
A simple answer is that I don’t know.
If the silk route is simply very young then it could be a coincidence, which is perhaps the most likely scenario.
Alternatively, as the two green areas eventually came to be the centres of early civilisation, these civilisations may simply have become connected by the roughly straight line between them, the Silk Road. It’s interesting to note that the other sites on the map all developed big trading towns but not great civilisations.
If the Silk Road is actually much older than it is generally thought to be then it could be that farming rapidly spread along the route (perhaps from west to east) as farming expanded. However, the route goes through areas have not been farmed until very recent times.
Alternatively, perhaps something like the Silk Road was already there when farming started. This seems very unlikely, as there is no evidence of contact between the two ends of the chain. But I suppose there wouldn’t be, for the reasons I mentioned above.
It is interesting to look briefly at Mehrgarh, the one site on the map which is not on the Silk Road. Mehrgarh sits in the Bolan Pass in Pakistan. It is an ancient village on a minor trade route.
Indeed the first farmers here were already trading shells from the coast, lapis lazuli from Badakhshan (far to the north in Afghanistan) and turquoise from either Iran or central Asia. If nothing else, it shows that the early farmers of Mehrgarh were in long distance contact with other people.
It’s interesting to speculate just how old the Silk Route might be. Until I have a better understanding of this, I’ll just repeat that I don’t know.
Singh, U 2009 A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: from the stone age to the 12th century. Prentice Hall, pp704.