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Concept: Silk Road


Phytoliths and biomolecular components extracted from ancient plant remains from Chang'an (Xi'an, the city where the Silk Road begins) and Ngari (Ali) in western Tibet, China, show that the tea was grown 2100 years ago to cater for the drinking habits of the Western Han Dynasty (207BCE-9CE), and then carried toward central Asia by ca.200CE, several hundred years earlier than previously recorded. The earliest physical evidence of tea from both the Chang'an and Ngari regions suggests that a branch of the Silk Road across the Tibetan Plateau, was established by the second to third century CE.

Concepts: Chang'an, People's Republic of China, Xi'an, China, Tang Dynasty, Central Asia, Han Dynasty, Silk Road


The Black Death, originating in Asia, arrived in the Mediterranean harbors of Europe in 1347 CE, via the land and sea trade routes of the ancient Silk Road system. This epidemic marked the start of the second plague pandemic, which lasted in Europe until the early 19th century. This pandemic is generally understood as the consequence of a singular introduction of Yersinia pestis, after which the disease established itself in European rodents over four centuries. To locate these putative plague reservoirs, we studied the climate fluctuations that preceded regional plague epidemics, based on a dataset of 7,711 georeferenced historical plague outbreaks and 15 annually resolved tree-ring records from Europe and Asia. We provide evidence for repeated climate-driven reintroductions of the bacterium into European harbors from reservoirs in Asia, with a delay of 15 ± 1 y. Our analysis finds no support for the existence of permanent plague reservoirs in medieval Europe.

Concepts: Infectious disease, Silk Road, Middle Ages, Yersinia pestis, Europe, Italy, Pandemic, Black Death


Self-rated health (SRH) has been widely studied to assess health inequalities in both developed and developing countries. However, no studies have been performed in Central Asia. The aim of the study was to assess gender-, ethnic-, and social inequalities in SRH in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Concepts: Astana, Turkmenistan, Cultural studies, South Asia, Silk Road, Asia, Kazakhstan, Central Asia


The ancient ‘Silk Roads’ formed a vast network of trade and exchange that facilitated the movement of commodities and agricultural products across medieval Central Asia via settled urban communities and mobile pastoralists. Considering food consumption patterns as an expression of socio-economic interaction, we analyse human remains for carbon and nitrogen isotopes in order to establish dietary intake, then model isotopic niches to characterize dietary diversity and infer connectivity among communities of urbanites and nomadic pastoralists. The combination of low isotopic variation visible within urban groups with isotopic distinction between urban communities irrespective of local environmental conditions strongly suggests localized food production systems provided primary subsistence rather than agricultural goods exchanged along trade routes. Nomadic communities, in contrast, experienced higher dietary diversity reflecting engagements with a wide assortment of foodstuffs typical for mobile communities. These data indicate tightly bound social connectivity in urban centres pointedly funnelled local food products and homogenized dietary intake within settled communities, whereas open and opportunistic systems of food production and circulation were possible through more mobile lifeways.

Concepts: Food security, Sustainability, Central Asia, Nutrition, Nomad, Food, Silk Road, Agriculture


There are many unanswered questions about the evolution of the ancient ‘Silk Roads’ across Asia. This is especially the case in their mountainous stretches, where harsh terrain is seen as an impediment to travel. Considering the ecology and mobility of inner Asian mountain pastoralists, we use ‘flow accumulation’ modelling to calculate the annual routes of nomadic societies (from 750 m to 4,000 m elevation). Aggregating 500 iterations of the model reveals a high-resolution flow network that simulates how centuries of seasonal nomadic herding could shape discrete routes of connectivity across the mountains of Asia. We then compare the locations of known high-elevation Silk Road sites with the geography of these optimized herding flows, and find a significant correspondence in mountainous regions. Thus, we argue that highland Silk Road networks (from 750 m to 4,000 m) emerged slowly in relation to long-established mobility patterns of nomadic herders in the mountains of inner Asia.

Concepts: Pastoralism, Herding, Silk Road, Flow network, Asia, Central Asia, Road, Mountain


The Tarim Basin in western China, known for its amazingly well-preserved mummies, has been for thousands of years an important crossroad between the eastern and western parts of Eurasia. Despite its key position in communications and migration, and highly diverse peoples, languages and cultures, its prehistory is poorly understood. To shed light on the origin of the populations of the Tarim Basin, we analysed mitochondrial DNA polymorphisms in human skeletal remains excavated from the Xiaohe cemetery, used by the local community between 4000 and 3500 years before present, and possibly representing some of the earliest settlers.

Concepts: Tarim Basin, Taklamakan Desert, Uyghur people, Silk Road, Mitochondrial DNA, Africa, Human, Tarim mummies


Central Asia is a vast geographic region that includes five former Soviet Union republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The region has a unique infectious disease burden, and a history that includes Silk Road trade routes and networks that were part of the anti-plague and biowarfare programs in the former Soviet Union. Post-Soviet Union biosurveillance research in this unique area of the world has met with several challenges, including lack of funding and resources to independently conduct hypothesis driven, peer-review quality research. Strides have been made, however, to increase scientific engagement and capability. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are examples of countries where biosurveillance research has been successfully conducted, particularly with respect to especially dangerous pathogens. In this review, we describe in detail the successes, challenges, and opportunities of conducting biosurveillance in Central Asia as exemplified by our recent research activities on ticks and tick-borne diseases in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Concepts: Russian Empire, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Silk Road, Soviet Union, Uzbekistan, Central Asia


Common walnut (Juglans regia L) is an economically important species cultivated worldwide for its wood and nuts. It is generally accepted that J. regia survived and grew spontaneously in almost completely isolated stands in its Asian native range after the Last Glacial Maximum. Despite its natural geographic isolation, J. regia evolved over many centuries under the influence of human management and exploitation. We evaluated the hypothesis that the current distribution of natural genetic resources of common walnut in Asia is, at least in part, the product of ancient anthropogenic dispersal, human cultural interactions, and afforestation. Genetic analysis combined with ethno-linguistic and historical data indicated that ancient trade routes such as the Persian Royal Road and Silk Road enabled long-distance dispersal of J. regia from Iran and Trans-Caucasus to Central Asia, and from Western to Eastern China. Ancient commerce also disrupted the local spatial genetic structure of autochthonous walnut populations between Tashkent and Samarkand (Central-Eastern Uzbekistan), where the northern and central routes of the Northern Silk Road converged. A significant association between ancient language phyla and the genetic structure of walnut populations is reported even after adjustment for geographic distances that could have affected both walnut gene flow and human commerce over the centuries. Beyond the economic importance of common walnut, our study delineates an alternative approach for understanding how the genetic resources of long-lived perennial tree species may be affected by the interaction of geography and human history.

Concepts: Tajikistan, Juglans regia, Tashkent, China, Walnut, Iran, Central Asia, Silk Road


Remnants of cities and farmlands in China’s hyperarid Tarim Basin indicate that environmental conditions were significantly wetter two millennia ago in a region which is barren desert today. Historical documents and age data of organic remains show that the Loulan Kingdom flourished during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) but was abandoned between its end and 645 CE. Previous archaeological, geomorphological and geological studies suggest that deteriorating climate conditions led to the abandonment of the ancient desert cities. Based on analyses of lake sediments from Lop Nur in the eastern Tarim Basin and a review of published records, we show that the Loulan Kingdom decline resulted from a man-made environmental disaster comparable to the recent Aral Sea crisis rather than from changing climate. Lop Nur and other lakes within the Han Dynasty realm experienced rapidly declining water levels or even desiccation whilst lakes in adjacent regions recorded rising levels and relatively wet conditions during the time of the Loulan Kingdom decline. Water withdrawal for irrigation farming in the middle reaches of rivers likely caused water shortage downstream and eventually the widespread deterioration of desert oases a long time before man initiated the Aral Sea disaster in the 1960s.

Concepts: Oasis, Tajikistan, Irrigation, Endorheic basin, Kashgar, Aral Sea, Silk Road, Silk Road transmission of Buddhism


Archeological researches have proposed arguments for human mobility and long-distance trading over the Eurasia before the Silk Roads. Here we utilize biologically available strontium isotope analysis to assess the extent of pre-Silk Road population movements and cultural communications across the Asian interior. From an early Iron Age cemetery (ca. 2500 yr B.P.) on the eastern Pamir Plateau, mean (87)Sr/(86)Sr ratios from 34 individuals display considerable isotopic variability, and 10 individuals are distinguished as migrants based on the local strontium isotope range of 0.710296-0.710572 defined by 12 ovicaprine bones. Comparison of the proportion (10/34) with the regional census data completed in 1909 A.D. (3% non-locals) suggests a highly migratory behavior on the plateau 2500 years ago. Furthermore, exotic mortuary objects, such as silk fabrics from eastern China and angular harp originated from the Near East, clearly demonstrate an interaction between different cultures on the plateau before the establishment of the Silk Road.

Concepts: Ancient Near East, Population, Silk, Archaeology, Han Dynasty, Culture, Central Asia, Silk Road