(CN) — Many may assume Bronze Age herders were relatively primitive people who endured the whims of nature as they struggled to survive. But a new study finds these hearty people living 3,500 years ago were far more sophisticated stewards of the land than previously known.
The herders’ broad understanding of natural forces allowed them to survive in some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world.
Using an innovative methodology, archaeologists from the University of Sydney recreated the seasonal migration routes of Bronze Age herders in Xinjiang province in remote northwestern China.
The Eurasian steppes have a harsh environment. To adapt to this arid landscape, Bronze Age herders domesticated animals, providing a stable source of food, shelter and wealth that could travel with them. But keeping their herds safe and healthy required them to migrate vast distances in search of adequate grazing and more hospitable weather.
Even today, the region remains a challenging place to live. Too much winter snow can obscure limited food, killing herds by the hundreds in what locals call a “white disaster.” Too little snow and there is not enough water for humans and animals, the feared “black disaster.” Managing the landscape through seasonal migration is key to survival and maintenance of the economic system based on livestock.
To understand Bronze Age herders’ migratory patterns, archaeologists used a novel combination of satellite imagery, archaeological evidence and information from present-day herders in the same region to determine snow cover and vegetation cycles — vital resources that were crucial to survival in the Bronze Age.
In conjunction with researchers from the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, archaeologists used satellite data to establish growth cycles for grazing land vegetation and estimate snow depth, providing insight into the herding suitability of different mountain regions in various seasons. Then they cross-referenced their findings with accounts from local Mongolian and Kazakh herders, which corroborated the data they had collected.
“Our ethnographic studies — interviews with local herders — have explained why certain locations were and still are chosen throughout the seasons: for the presence of early and late grass, optimal grazing potential in summer, and the absence of snow cover in the winter,” said Peter Jia, lead author of the study published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Funded by the Australian Research Council, the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Chinese State Bureau of Relics, the study reveals the extensive knowledge Bronze Age herders had for the harsh region they relied on for survival.
“This detailed model of how Bronze Age people capitalized on the resources in their environment helps greatly in understanding the Prehistoric Silk Road,” Jia added.
The Silk Road was an ancient trade route linking China with the West through silk, wool and gold, as well as cultural ideas that passed between civilizations.
The study builds on Marika Vicziany’s research published in the 2019 book “Ancient Xinjiang at the International Crossroads.”
“Bronze Age herders … were brilliant environmental managers and multi-skilled in combining herding with farming, artisanal, trading and security-oriented activities as a way of minimizing the risks of living in difficult, extremely cold, semi-arid and desert environments,” Vicziany wrote.
Previous archaeological evidence made it difficult to determine how Bronze Age herders adapted to life in Xinjiang and used the landscape to their advantage.
“Now we have a new validated method for determining the season in which people stayed in a place,” said Alison Betts, who co-authored the study.
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