Map of the Silk Road crossing the deserts and Eurasian Steppe in Central Asia
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The increasingly fluid Silk Road

What would you imagine was carried along the Silk Road(s), that ancient route that connected the far-East to the near-East and Europe? Silks? Well, yes, and spices, etc. (and not forgetting traffic in infectious human diseases). But those are tangible, tradable, items, ‘things’. What is being better appreciated nowadays is that it was also ideas that travelled along that circuitous conduit that linked West and East in times long gone by. And one of the most important concepts that has recently been unearthed – quite literally! – is irrigation (‘the artificial application of water to land for the purpose of agricultural production’) practices.

Map of the Silk Road crossing the deserts and Eurasian Steppe in Central Asia
Map of the Silk Road crossing the deserts and Eurasian Steppe in Central Asia. Image Maksim / Wikipedia

As all our readers should be aware, plants need water to grow, and simply to survive. In many terrestrial habitats – e.g. deserts – water is in short supply. To enable thirsty crops to survive and prosper to produce grain, etc. for hungry people, human ingenuity hit upon the idea of irrigating those parched soils by bringing in water from places where it is in abundance to those where it isn’t, and is sorely needed.

Using drones and satellite imaging techniques, Yuqi Li et al. have uncovered a remarkably well-preserved example of a small-scale irrigation system dating from the 3rd or 4th century AD/CE in the otherwise barren foothills of China’s Tian Shan Mountains (part of a chain of mountain ranges serving as a central corridor for the Silk Road). The importance of this find is that the technology would have allowed the farmers to grow grain crops in a climate that historically receives less than 3 inches (66 mm) of rainfall per year, which is about one-fifth of what is considered necessary to cultivate even the most drought-tolerant strains of millet. Significantly, the irrigation system here in China’s Xinjiang region is similar to those found in other Silk Road sites at the Geokysur river delta oasis in southeast Turkmenistan, and further west at the Tepe Gaz Tavila settlement in Iran, and is nearly identical to that of the Wadi Faynan farming community in southern Jordan. Although it is possible that such geographically-dispersed and remote groups could have reached near identical irrigation solutions independently, Li argues that knowledge of early irrigation technologies followed the Silk Route, being passed from one pastoral group to another over thousands of years.

This work adds to that of Robert Spengler III et al. that underlines the importance of agriculture and exchange to social developments of the communities in Central Asia during the Iron Age, in the first millennium BC/BCE. Just as the internet is today, so, in days long gone by, it seems that the Silk Road was a sort of information superhighway too. ‘That which connects us truly binds us, each unto another, and both strengthens and emphasises our shared humanity’… [Anonymous].

[Ed. – But, lest we think of all roads as being ‘good’, we are reminded by those who examine the impact(s) of modern-day roads and highways that they aren’t necessarily so beneficial. There are in fact two quite distinct sides to most roads. For example, and on the plus side, roads can promote economic and social development, however, and on the downside, they can hasten deforestation and the rapid disappearance of wild areas and their related biodiversity. To learn more of the current concerns and debate about such developments, interested readers are directed at the papers by Mohammed Alamgir et al., William Laurance and Irene Arrea, Mohammed Alamgir et al., Alex Lechner et al., and Alexander Pfaff et al..]

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international phytological organ for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I also continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Botany One. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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