A consistent desire for animal proteins in the Bronze Age Xinjiang, China

Minghao Lin

Department of History, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, 200240 Shanghai, China

Location of Xinjiang (China)

The Xinjiang region is located in far northwestern China neighboring central Asia and Mongolian Steppe. Throughout antiquity it has been a nexus for exchange in ideas, technologies, livestock, or even populations. Although most of its land is covered by severe environments such as the Taklamakan Desert, diverse cultures have been recognised since the early Bronze Age. Near Eastern cultivars such as wheat and barley have been excavated and dated to by the beginning of the second millennium BC in this region. In spite of the appearance of wheat and barley at some sites, did the subsistence of ancient Xinjiang populations really rely on these novel C3 cultivars? The degree to which these Near Eastern cultivars contributed to human dietary intake and how these new food types shaped local subsistence strategies remains poorly understood.

The northern slope of the East Tian Shan Mountains in Balikun, Xinjiang (China). (Credit: Minghao Lin)

In this research, part of my Humboldt fellowship project hosted by Prof Cheryl Makarewicz at Kiel University, we conducted a regional scale meta-analyses of carbon and nitrogen isotope values measured from humans and animals including cattle, sheep/goats, and deer from sites dating from c. 2000 BC to AD 1000 within the Xinjiang region to examine the degree to which novel cultivars and animal proteins were incorporated into local subsistence system from the perspective of isotopic expression. We notice a narrow gap (1.7-2.7‰) in δ13C values but a wide space (4.5-6.5‰) in δ15N between humans and bovid samples. Meanwhile, we also record a consistent expression of high nitrogen isotope values visible in humans across time, indicating a persistent preference of the Xinjiang people for animal resources (e.g. meat, dairy proteins). This suggests novel cultivars of wheat and barley were not rapidly adopted in Xinjiang highlighting the food dispersal and acceptance across Eurasia during prehistory was a complex process.

Results of meta-analysis of stable carbon and nitrogen isotopic results from Xinjiang (China)
(Credit: Minghao Lin).

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