The Existence of Andronovo Cultural Influence in Xinjiang during the 2nd Millennium BC

By Jianjin, Mei; Shell, Colin | Antiquity, September 1999 | Go to article overview

The Existence of Andronovo Cultural Influence in Xinjiang during the 2nd Millennium BC


Jianjin, Mei, Shell, Colin, Antiquity


The Andronovo culture, a Bronze Age complex flourishing in the 2nd millennium BC, comprised a number of regional variants and covered an extensive area stretching from the Urals eastward to the Yenisey river, and from the northern border of the forest-steppe south to the Pamirs of Tadzhikistan (Mallory 1989: 227; 1995: 377-8). It played a crucial role in the spread of bronze metallurgy in the Eurasian steppe. This paper assesses Andronovo-related material from Xinjiang, and the contacts between Xinjiang and Andronovo.

Xinjiang: geographical and archaeological context

Xinjiang, the westernmost provincial region of China, is well known as an important cross-roads on the ancient Silk Route from the 2nd century Be. Its geography is divided by the Tian Shan mountain range stretching from Kirghizia eastwards through Xinjiang. South of the Tian Shan lies the Tarim basin, centred on the Taklamakan desert, surrounded on the west by the Pamirs, and on the south by the Kunlun and Altyn ranges. North of the Tian Shan lies the Dzungarian basin, bounded on the northeast by the Altai mountains (FIGURE 1). Many rivers and streams run from mountain highlands towards the desert basins, giving rise to a number of oases along the mountain foothills, around which the ancient settlements of Xinjiang grew and flourished.

Expeditions to the Tarim basin by Aurel Stein (1907; 1921) and Sven Hedin (1940) initiated interest in the prehistoric cultures of Xinjiang, although much remained unknown until quite recently. In the last 20 years, more than 60 prehistoric sites have been discovered and reported in Xinjiang, revealing the existence of diverse prehistoric cultures throughout the region (Shui Tao 1993; Chen Ge 1995: 6-18). More than 130 radiocarbon dates place them within a period ranging from 2000 to 400 BC (IAC 1991: 294335). This new evidence not only fundamentally changes our knowledge of the prehistory of Xinjiang itself, but also provides a fresh perspective for understanding the early east-west cultural interaction in Eurasia. The new material from Xinjiang has aroused much interest, in publications such as The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age peoples of eastern Central Asia (Mair 1998).

Two cultural periods, corresponding to the Bronze Age (c. 2000-1000 BC) and Iron Age (c. 1000-400 BC) are now generally accepted (Chen Ge 1987; Debaine-Francfort 1988; 1989; Chen & Hiebert 1995). The Bronze Age regional cultural groups include Gumugou, Xintala, Wupu, Yanbulake, Nanwan, Ke'ermuqi, Haladun and Aketala [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1: A-H OMITTED], while those of the Iron Age include Chawuhugou, Qunbake, Subashi, Aidinghu, Alagou, Tiemulike and Xiangbaobao. The names are taken from the excavated type sites that can be broadly assigned to the two periods. However, the relationships between the sites and the cultural sequence of prehistoric Xinjiang remain poorly understood. The distribution of the Bronze Age cultures (FIGURE 1: a-h) shows them to be located in eastern, southern and northernmost Xinjiang, with no sites in northwestern Xinjiang.

From recent evidence, this paper argues that, instead of being an archaeological void during the Bronze Age, northwestern Xinjiang played a pivotal role in the relationship between Xinjiang and its neighbours to the west in Kazakhstan and Kirghizia. To consider this argument, we need first to review the issue of Xinjiang-Andronovo contacts.

Xinjiang-Andronovo contacts

Wang Binghua (1985: 52-3) first argued for Xinjiang-Andronovo contacts based on the find of a hoard of 13 copper and bronze items recovered at Aga'ersen, Gongliu county, Yili region [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1: 1 OMITTED], which includes 3 shaft-hole axes, 3 sickles, 3 gouges, 2 chisels, I hammer and 1 fragment [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. He pointed out that the forms of axes and sickles from Aga'ersen are exactly like those of the Andronovo culture found in the neighbouring former Soviet Union. …

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