Early pastoral-agricultural communications along Silk Road

By SHENG PENGFEI / 11-16-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A brocade fragment unearthed from the ruins of the ancient city of Niya in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, dated to the Han Dynasty Photo: Ren Guanhong/CSST 

Since 2018, the scientific and technological archaeology team of Fudan University has been cooperating with the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Regional Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology to conduct bioarchaeological research on the Shichengzi site. Located at Qitai County, Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the Shichengzi site is about 380 meters long from north to south and 280 meters wide from east to west, with a total area of nearly 110,000 square meters. It is the site of a former military garrison established by the Central Plains Dynasty at the northern foot of the eastern Tianshan Mountains during the Han era (202 BCE–220 CE). Some believe that this site was the probable location of “Shule,” which General Geng Gong of the Eastern Han Dynasty (22–220) once guarded, bearing great importance in history.

Bioarchaeological findings

From 2014 to 2019, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Regional Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology conducted excavations at the Shichengzi site and discovered relics such as city walls, city gates, houses, and tombs, a wealth of tiles and other architectural materials with obvious Han features, as well as items related to battles, production, and daily life paraphernalia.

The results of paleoethnobotany, zooarchaeology, carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis, along with ancient DNA research at the Shichengzi site reveal that two types of people lived in the Shichengzi site at that time: agricultural people and pastoral people. Although both groups relied on cereal grains as their main food sources, there were great differences in their protein consumption from foods such as meat and milk. Among them, the agricultural group exhibited rather poor nutrition, consuming crop-based diets and fewer meat and dairy products, The nutritional level of the pastoral diet was higher, possibly due to their consumption of a large amount of meat and dairy products. The genetic pedigree of individual residents of Shichengzi revealed by ancient DNA analysis shows that the agricultural population of Shichengzi shared a genetic origin with the late Neolithic people in the Yellow River basin, while its pastoral population shared a genetic origin with the Ancient Northeast Asians.

Outposts based upon tun-tian [a type of frontier “military-agricultural colonies” throughout the history of China, under which troops were sent to the frontier to turn uncultivated land into self-sustained, agrarian settlements] system during the Han Dynasty served as “supply stations” for close exchanges between the Han and the Western Regions. The aforementioned research makes it possible to outline the landscape of the historical interactions between agro-pastoralist populations in the ancient tuntian-based sites of the Han era represented by Shichengzi.

The garrison soldiers from the Central Plains mainly cultivated crops such as naked barley (Hordeum vulgare var. celeste), bread wheat (Triticum aestivum), common millet (Panicum miliaceum) and foxtail millet (Setaria italica), and kept a large number of livestock such as sheep, cattle, and horses. These agricultural and animal husbandry products served as logistical supplies to Han armies and envoys who performed military operations in the Western Regions. As the connections between the Han Empire and the Western Regions became closer, meat and dairy products were also supplied to foreign envoys who travelled between the Western Regions and the Han Dynasty. A considerable number of them may have been part of the pastoral population who lived in Shichengzi and consumed meat and dairy products. 

It appears that the pastoral people at Shichengzi didn’t change their livelihood and lifestyle upon the arrival of the Han people. They maintained their original dietary habits and achieved relatively good nutrition and living conditions. Two types of stone mills used for grain processing were also discovered at the Shichengzi site, namely the “Central Plains-style” medium-sized stone mill with developed grinding teeth and better milling efficiency, and the original small stone mill from the Western Regions. Combined with the diversity of lifestyles and genetic sources of Shichengzi residents, we speculate that the establishment of Shichengzi may have formed a new cultural context where local agro-pastoralist populations interacted and benefited each other.

Silk as evidence

In a tomb numbered M2 in the cemetery region on the west side of the Shichengzi site, there rests a female minor who lived in the Eastern Han Dynasty. She was surrounded by iron arrowheads, bronze earrings, rings, lacquerware and other grave objects. More than 140 pieces of sheep talus bones were also found in the southeast of the tomb, presenting a distinctive prairie nomadic cultural style. Isotope analysis of ancient recipes shows that this girl was from a pastoralist group whose main livelihood was pastoralism. Interestingly, both the wooden coffin and the body in Tomb M2 were wrapped in ocher and tan fabrics. Tests identify that these fabrics were plain white silk and red silk juan—a type of staple silk produced in the Central Plains during the Eastern Han era. This is the first time silk has been discovered in the northern foothills of the Tianshan Mountains in Xinjiang. Why does silk appear in the tombs of an underage pastoral woman? The answer may lie in the use of silk in burial customs and the local burial customs in Xinjiang.

The Silk Road was famous for material and cultural exchanges using silk as a medium. Historical records have depicted the grand occasion of Zhang Qian’s second mission to the Western Regions during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han: “[Emperor Wu of Han ordered Zhang Qian] to lead 300 people, each with two horses, bringing tens of thousands of cattle and sheep, and gold and expensive silk textile.” “Juan” is the general name for plain silk fabrics, and is the most common silk fabric in ancient China. The early dictionary Shuowen Jiezi describes juan as wheat-green silk fabrics. During the Han era in the Central Plains, silk served not only as a daily textile but also as a frequently placed item in tombs. It symbolized the traditional belief that the deceased should be honored and cared for as if they were still alive.

Studies have shown that the custom of covering the coffin and the deceased with fabric or leather products has existed since the Bronze Age. For example, at the representative Bronze Age sites in southern Xinjiang—Xiaohe Cemetery and Gumugou Cemetery, wooden coffins and tomb occupants were found covered with leather and woolen fabrics. Archaeologists found a wealth of brocades and embroideries in addition to wool and leather products in Tomb M8 at the Niya site and Tomb M15 at the Yingpan cemetery, which dates to the Han and Jin  (266–420) eras. This suggests that during that period, the funeral customs of Xinjiang nobles involved the use of “high-end silk fabrics” characterized by intricate designs and intricate processing. The presence of silk artifacts in the tomb of a nomadic girl at Shichengzi indicates that silk was extensively utilized in Xinjiang during that era.

As a relatively stable cultural factor, funeral customs are seldom influenced by foreign cultures. We have observed that populations in the Western Regions during the Han and Jin eras covered their coffins and their deceased with various fabrics, a funeral custom that had been followed locally since the Bronze Age. However, in the process of interacting with the Han people, they not only accepted silk produced in the Central Plains, but also adopted the cultural connotations of silk in health care and funeral rituals to a certain extent. By this we can observe that the nomadic people around Shichengzi had accepted the Central Plains culture to a certain extent.

Sheng Pengfei is an associate research fellow from the Institute of Archaeological Science at Fudan University.