Origins of Agriculture in Western Central Asia: An Environmental-Archaeological Study

Origins of Agriculture in Western Central Asia: An Environmental-Archaeological Study

Origins of Agriculture in Western Central Asia: An Environmental-Archaeological Study

Origins of Agriculture in Western Central Asia: An Environmental-Archaeological Study


In Origins of Agriculture in Western Central Asia, archaeologist David R. Harris addresses questions of when, how, and why agriculture and settled village life began east of the Caspian Sea. The book describes and assesses evidence from archaeological investigations in Turkmenistan and adjacent parts of Iran, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan in relation to present and past environmental conditions and genetic and archaeological data on the ancestry of the crops and domestic animals of the Neolithic period. It includes accounts of previous research on the prehistoric archaeology of the region and reports the results of a recent environmental-archaeological project undertaken by British, Russian, and Turkmen archaeologists in Turkmenistan, principally at the early Neolithic site of Jeitun (Djeitun) on the southern edge of the Karakum desert.

This project has demonstrated unequivocally that agropastoralists who cultivated barley and wheat, raised goats and sheep, hunted wild animals, made stone tools and pottery, and lived in small mudbrick settlements were present in southern Turkmenistan by 7,000 years ago (c. 6,000 BCE calibrated), where they came into contact with hunter-gatherers of the "Keltiminar Culture." It is possible that barley and goats were domesticated locally, but the available archaeological and genetic evidence leads to the conclusion that all or most of the elements of the Neolithic "Jeitun Culture" spread to the region from farther west by a process of demic or cultural diffusion that broadly parallels the spread of Neolithic agropastoralism from southwest Asia into Europe.

By synthesizing for the first time what is currently known about the origins of agriculture in a large part of Central Asia, between the more fully investigated regions of southwest Asia and China, this book makes a unique contribution to the worldwide literature on transitions from hunting and gathering to agriculture.


Having outlined the present physical environment of western Central Asia, and in order to make sound inferences about prehistoric settlement and subsistence in the region, we need next to consider environmental changes that occurred during the Pleistocene and Holocene, the two epochs of the Quaternary period. At present there is little local evidence available of such changes, with the exception of data derived from two main sources: studies of the palaeohydrology of the Caspian and Aral Sea basins, and of palaeosol (buried soil) sequences in the Tajik-Afghan basin. These studies provide the basis for much of the following description of major Pleistocene-Holocene environmental changes in the region.

Studies of Tertiary geography, climate, and biota (e.g., Atamuradov 1994:52–61; Kurbanov 1994:124–27) indicate that the climate became progressively more continental and the flora more xerophytic through the Pliocene (the final epoch of the Tertiary). There is fossil evidence that broadleaf trees such as oak and liquidambar were components of mesophytic forests in the Kopetdag mountains, but they became extinct as the trend toward a more continental climate, coupled with tectonic uplift, continued through the Quaternary. This trend caused the vegetation to become differentiated into lowland desert forms and more mesic communities in the mountains and along the main river valleys. By the end of the Pliocene tectonic activity had created the major mountain ranges and lowlands, including the Aral and Caspian Sea basins and the Sarykamysh depression; the ancestral (proto-) Syrdarya, Zeravshan, Amudarya, Uzboi, Murghab, Tedzhen, Atrek, and Gorgan river systems were in existence; and the lowlands had become generally desertic (Atamuradov 1994:56–60; Boomer et al. 2000:1260–66). Then, during the Pleistocene and Holocene, the climate, drainage pattern, and plant and animal communities underwent a series of further changes that led to the present-day configuration and ecology of the region.

Pleistocene–Holocene Changes in

The alternation of glacial and interglacial climates that occurred across the mid and high latitudes of the northern hemisphere during the Pleistocene was manifested in Central Asia in alternating phases of ice accumulation and wastage in the higher mountains, associated respectively with cold-arid and warmer semi-arid conditions in the lowlands. the glacial/ interglacial succession was also linked to changes in river flow and the levels of the Caspian and Aral Seas.

During the Early Pleistocene the protoAmudarya flowed west to the Caspian and built a large alluvial plain in the Lowland Karakum, before it shifted northward, later in the Pleistocene, and began flowing via the Sarykamysh depression into the Aral Sea basin, which had previously been largely dry. There is uncertainty about when in the Late Pleistocene this major change of direction occurred (Aladin et al. 1996:34), but it caused the Lowland Karakum, in which the Murghab and Tedzhen rivers built deep series of deltaic deposits, to be gradually transformed by wind action into a sand desert (Atamuradov 1994:62).

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.