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Early dispersal of neolithic domesticated sheep into the heart of central Asia

Along the Tian Shan and Alay mountain ranges of Central Asia, sheep and other domestic livestock form the core economy of contemporary life. Although it was here that the movements of their ancient predecessors helped to shape the great trade networks of the Silk Road, domestic animals were thought to have come relatively late to the region. A new study reveals that the roots of animal domestication in Central Asia stretch back at least 8,000 years — making the region one of the oldest continuously inhabited pastoral landscapes in the world. The findings push back the presence of domesticated animals in the region by some 3,000 years.

Along the Tian Shan and Alay mountain ranges of Central Asia, sheep and other domestic livestock form the core economy of contemporary life. Although it was here that the movements of their ancient predecessors helped to shape the great trade networks of the Silk Road, domestic animals were thought to have come relatively late to the region. A new study, published today in the journal Nature: Human Behavior, reveals that the roots of animal domestication in Central Asia stretch back at least 8,000 years — making the region one of the oldest continuously inhabited pastoral landscapes in the world.

The domestication of sheep, goat, and cattle first took place in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia and the nearby mountain zones of western Asia roughly 10,000 years ago, in lockstep with the first domestication of plant crops like wheat and barley. This innovation in human subsistence, known as the Neolithic Revolution, spread northwards to Europe and southwards to Africa and India, transforming human societies across three continents. But until recently, it seemed that this dramatic expansion of domestic plants and animals failed to reach eastward to the rich mountain zones of Central Asia, where — despite their outsized significance in the later millennia of the Bronze Age and beyond — there was little evidence of a Neolithic dispersal.

That changed when a joint team of international scientists, led by Dr. Svetlana Shnaider of Russia’s Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography (RAS-Siberia, Novosibirsk) and Dr. Aida Abdykanova of the American University of Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan), decided to revisit rockshelter Obishir V, tucked into a mountain precipice along Kyrgyzstan’s southern border with Uzbekistan. The site, which was first discovered and excavated by Soviet archaeologists in the 20th century, had yielded an unusual assemblage of stone tools, some of which seemed to have been used for processing grains. Furthermore, sprinkled throughout the layers of the site’s geologic strata were the fragmented remains of what appeared to be sheep and goats.

Could this be evidence of an ancient, undocumented Neolithic movement of domestic animals deep into the interior of Central Asia? To find out, Shnaider and Abykanova partnered with lead author Dr. William Taylor, a specialist in the study of animal domestication at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Museum of Natural History and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, along with a team of international experts from across Europe and the United States. After radiocarbon dating bones and teeth from the site, it became clear that the oldest cultural layer dated at least as far back as ca. 6000 BCE, or more than 8,000 years ago — three millennia earlier than domestic animals were thought to have reached Central Asia.

Burning, cut marks, and other changes to the animal bones showed that they had been butchered, while patterns of microscopic seasonal layering within the animals’ tooth cementum indicated that they were slaughtered in the fall, as is common in many herding societies. But because the bones were highly fragmented, the species could not be identified using standard anatomical analysis. Instead, the researchers applied an interdisciplinary approach using both paleogenomics and collagen peptide fingerprinting to identify the animal remains. Comparing their results with the genomes of wild and domestic sheep species from across Eurasia, the researchers made a shocking discovery.

“With each new line of evidence, it became increasingly clear… these were not wild sheep — they were domestic animals,” says Taylor.

For those that have worked for years to understand Central Asia’s prehistory, the results are startling.

“This discovery just illustrates how many mysteries still remain regarding the prehistory of Inner Asia — the cultural crossroads of the ancient world,” says the Max Planck Institute’s Dr. Robert Spengler — a study co-author and author of Fruits from the Sands: The Silk Road origins of the foods we eat.

Future work will be necessary to understand the full impact of the study’s findings and their implications for the rest of ancient Eurasia. Shnaider plans to return to Obishir this coming summer to look for clues and to determine whether other domestic animals, like cattle, or domestic plants, such as wheat and barley, also spread to Kyrgyzstan from Mesopotamia in the deep past. With an award from the European Research Council, project partner and co-author Dr. Christina Warinner (Harvard/MPI-SHH) is spearheading an effort to investigate whether these first Central Asian sheep spread elsewhere in the region and whether they were used to produce dairy or wool.

“This work is just the beginning,” says Taylor. “By applying these interdisciplinary techniques from archaeological science, we are starting to unlock the clues to Central Asia’s past.”

Source: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/04/210408112349.htm

Rewriting the history of domestic animals in the shadow of the proto-Silk Road

New discoveries made through ancient DNA show that early animal domestication took root in the mountains of Central Asia more than 8000 years ago, nearly three millennia earlier than previously recognized.

Archaeologist Saltanat Alisher-kyzy conducts new excavations at Obishir in 2017, a site originally explored by Soviet archaeologists in the 1970’s.

Central Asia is a land of animals, and a land of social connections. For centuries, people in the high mountains of the continental interior have raised domestic livestock, relying on them for food, travel, trade, or war. Domestic animals carried the first travelers on the Silk Road, and supported great trans-Eurasian empires from the Persians to the Mongols and beyond. Today, domestic plants and animals are still the cornerstone of life and culture in the fertile valleys and high mountain pastures of the Tian Shan, Alay, and Pamir mountain ranges – a region researchers sometimes call the Inner Asia Mountain Corridor, or IAMC for short. 

Because this region has always been a crossroads, those of us studying the history of people and animals in Central Asia are always looking for connections. The exchange and communication routes of the ancient world functioned like the spokes on a wagon wheel, with the mountains of Inner Asia at their center. But when did domestic animals first reach this part of the world, and from where? And what can these connections tell us about the world we live in today?

As archaeological science has advanced by leaps and bounds, its practitioners have made remarkable progress in answering these questions. Over the last decade scientists have reconstructed the spread of domestic crops westward from China, and eastwards from Mesopotamia, using careful screening and the study of tiny plant remains, an approach known as archaeobotany. But because the region’s most ancient assemblages are often small and degraded, we’ve often had to do the archaeological equivalent of “reading the tea leaves” – working with data sets that are fragmentary, incomplete, or inconclusive. Now, emerging technologies are allowing us to overcome these challenges, and we are starting to unravel some unexpected secrets.

I think we have evidence of domestic sheep and goat – thousands and thousands of years before they should be here.  

– Dr. Shnaider

Among the first scholars to try to reconstruct the prehistory of humans and domestic animals in Central Asia were those of the Soviet era. With few of the tools we have today, these early researchers identified, excavated, and studied material culture from all across the continental interior. In reading the bones and stones they unearthed, some Soviet scholars envisioned an early adoption of domestic animals and domestic plants – a “Neolithic Revolution” that transformed early societies.  Lacking in much direct evidence, though, the notion of an early Central Asian Neolithic failed to gain much traction among the broader interntational academic community.

A few years ago, my dear friend and coauthor Dr. Svetlana Shnaider (of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography at the Russian Academy of Sciences), came to me with a puzzle. With her research collaborator, Dr. Aida Abykanova of the American University of Central Asia, Svetlana had been doing research for years at an early Holocene rockshelter at the heart of this Inner Asia Mountain Corridor. The site was named by Soviet scholars as Obishir V, and is nestled in a mountainside along the southern edge of the Ferghana Valley: a wide basin straddling the modern nations of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Dr. Shnaider told me:  “I think we have evidence of domestic sheep and goat – thousands and thousands of years before they should be here.”  

I was skeptical, especially given how small and fragmentary the assemblage from this rockshelter seemed to be. The animal bones she showed me – the results of years of painstaking excavations – filled only a few quart-sized Ziploc bags. Moreover, nearly every bone was broken into tiny slivers and splinters, likely due to how the animals had been processed and cooked thousands of years ago. But I was also intrigued: if Dr. Shnaider was right, such a finding could totally change how we think about the prehistory of Inner Asia.  

We set to work trying to answer Svetlana’s puzzle – but first we had to figure out a research plan. More standard kinds of zooarchaeological analyses, such as the anatomical comparisons we might usually perform to identify animal species, were of little value given the fragmented state of the assemblage. Partnering with Dr. Christina Warinner and Dr. Cosimo Posth at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, where Shnaider and I worked in 2017, we brainstormed other techniques that might give us answers. Previously, we had success using a mass spectrometry technique known as collagen fingerprinting to identify and understand small, fragmented assemblages linked to prehistoric animal economies in a nearby area of southern Kyrgyzstan. Trying this approach at Obishir showed us that nearly all of the unidentifiable bones belonged to sheep or goat – but the results couldn’t allow distinguish between domestic animals or their wild relatives. Follow-up analyses of the site’s sheep and goat teeth by a specialist, Dr. William Rendu, suggested that the animals all died in the fall, a pattern consistent with the seasonal culling practices of some herders. We were excited – but we needed something more concrete. Finally, we decided to dive into ancient DNA, working with Drs. Warinner and Posth, along with Dr. Melanie Pruvost at the University of Bordeaux, to sequence genomic material from the sheep and goats from Obishir, and compare them to reference genomes from wild and domestic animals.

When our first results came back, we were stunned. Dr. Shnaider’s hunch was right – these were domestic animals! Domestic sheep and goat, thousands of kilometers east of Mesopotamia, and thousands of years before we expected them. Direct radiocarbon dating of these sheep showed us that the assemblage dated to more than 8,000 years ago, ca. 6000 BCE, and reconstructed genome-wide DNA sequences showed that Obishir sheep fell within the variation of domesticated sheep breeds, and that they belonged to mitochondrial haplogroup A, one of the oldest haplogroups for domestic sheep seen in the Near East. This means that while the first herders and farmers were reshaping the natural and cultural landscapes of Europe, northern Africa, and South Asia, herding lifeways were also taking root in the shadow of what would later become the Silk Roads. 

Our international team will spend the coming years figuring out precisely what these findings mean for Eurasia’s past. Did these ancient herders in the IAMC move there from Mesopotamia? Or were the animals exchanged and passed to ancient Central Asians indirectly, through trade? Did domestic plants, like wheat and barley, or other domestic animals, like cattle, also make the journey? How far did domesticates move into Asia beyond Obishir – did people bring them further into the Pamir, Karakorum, Kunlun, or Himalaya to the south, Tian Shan and Kunlun mountains to the east, or the Altai Mountains to the north? Did these first pastoral economies in the mountains of Central Asia provide a staging area for their later movement into places like Mongolia or China? How did the introduction of domestic animals impact the social structure, religious beliefs, or landscapes of ancient Central Asia? 

Because the spread of domestic animals throughout Eurasia – for food, fiber, and transportation – have contributed so much to the roots of our modern, globalized world, answering these questions will be essential to understanding our collective past and our collective future. By continuing to make the most of emerging technologies with international scientific teams that can navigate Eurasia’s many linguistic and political boundaries, archaeological science will rewrite the “prehistory books” for this crucial region of the ancient world.  

See the associated study, “Evidence for early dispersal of domestic sheep into Central Asia” in Nature: Human Behavior here.

Source: https://socialsciences.nature.com/posts/rewriting-the-history-of-domestic-animals-in-the-shadow-of-the-silk-road

Early dispersal of neolithic domesticated sheep into the heart of central Asia

An artist’s rendering of a Neolithic pastoralist at Obishir rockshelter. Credit: Ettore Mazza

Along the Tian Shan and Alay mountain ranges of Central Asia, sheep and other domestic livestock form the core economy of contemporary life. Although it was here that the movements of their ancient predecessors helped to shape the great trade networks of the Silk Road, domestic animals were thought to have come relatively late to the region. A new study, published today in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, reveals that the roots of animal domestication in Central Asia stretch back at least 8,000 years—making the region one of the oldest continuously inhabited pastoral landscapes in the world.

The domestication of sheep, goat, and cattle first took place in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia and the nearby mountain zones of western Asia roughly 10,000 years ago, in lockstep with the first domestication of plant crops like wheat and barley. This innovation in human subsistence, known as the Neolithic Revolution, spread northwards to Europe and southwards to Africa and India, transforming human societies across three continents. But until recently, it seemed that this dramatic expansion of domestic plants and animals failed to reach eastward to the rich mountain zones of Central Asia, where—despite their outsized significance in the later millennia of the Bronze Age and beyond—there was little evidence of a Neolithic dispersal.

That changed when a joint team of international scientists, led by Dr. Svetlana Shnaider of Russia’s Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography (RAS-Siberia, Novosibirsk) and Dr. Aida Abdykanova of the American University of Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan), decided to revisit rockshelter Obishir V, tucked into a mountain precipice along Kyrgyzstan’s southern border with Uzbekistan. The site, which was first discovered and excavated by Soviet archaeologists in the 20th century, had yielded an unusual assemblage of stone tools, some of which seemed to have been used for processing grains. Furthermore, sprinkled throughout the layers of the site’s geologic strata were the fragmented remains of what appeared to be sheep and goats.

Could this be evidence of an ancient, undocumented Neolithic movement of domestic animals deep into the interior of Central Asia? To find out, Shnaider and Abykanova partnered with lead author Dr. William Taylor, a specialist in the study of animal domestication at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Museum of Natural History and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, along with a team of international experts from across Europe and the United States. After radiocarbon dating bones and teeth from the site, it became clear that the oldest cultural layer dated at least as far back as ca. 6000 BCE, or more than 8,000 years ago—three millennia earlier than domestic animals were thought to have reached Central Asia.

With each new line of evidence, it became increasingly clear… these were not wild sheep—they were domestic animals,

says Taylor.

Burning, cut marks, and other changes to the animal bones showed that they had been butchered, while patterns of microscopic seasonal layering within the animals’ tooth cementum indicated that they were slaughtered in the fall, as is common in many herding societies. But because the bones were highly fragmented, the species could not be identified using standard anatomical analysis. Instead, the researchers applied an interdisciplinary approach using both paleogenomics and collagen peptide fingerprinting to identify the animal remains. Comparing their results with the genomes of wild and domestic sheep species from across Eurasia, the researchers made a shocking discovery.

“With each new line of evidence, it became increasingly clear… these were not wild sheep—they were domestic animals,” says Taylor.

For those that have worked for years to understand Central Asia’s prehistory, the results are startling.

“This discovery just illustrates how many mysteries still remain regarding the prehistory of Inner Asia—the cultural crossroads of the ancient world,” says the Max Planck Institute’s Dr. Robert Spengler—a study co-author and author of “Fruits from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat.”

Future work will be necessary to understand the full impact of the study’s findings and their implications for the rest of ancient Eurasia. Shnaider plans to return to Obishir this coming summer to look for clues and to determine whether other domestic animals, like cattle, or domestic plants, such as wheat and barley, also spread to Kyrgyzstan from Mesopotamia in the deep past. With an award from the European Research Council, project partner and co-author Dr. Christina Warinner (Harvard/MPI-SHH) is spearheading an effort to investigate whether these first Central Asian sheep spread elsewhere in the region and whether they were used to produce dairy or wool.

“This work is just the beginning,” says Taylor. “By applying these interdisciplinary techniques from archaeological science, we are starting to unlock the clues to Central Asia’s past.”

Source: https://phys.org/news/2021-04-early-dispersal-neolithic-domesticated-sheep.html