Archaeologists have unearthed an ancient and complex irrigation system at the base of the Tian Shan Mountains in China, along what was once a central corridor of the Silk Road. This discovery is an extremely important one as it finally explains how herding communities in the area were able to successfully crow crops in a region that is known to be one of the harshest and driest on the planet.
As Newsweek reports, the surprising discovery of the irrigation system was first noticed by researchers from Washington University in St. Louis after they were looking over data that was taken from satellite imagery and drones and spied what they have called the “unmistakable outlines” of dams, cisterns, and canals.
This irrigation system on the Silk Road in China is believed to date back to between the 3rd and 4th centuries CE and eventually fell out of use and disappeared, seemingly forever, until they were just spotted by archaeologists again.
Archaeologists have surmised that the kind of knowledge that would have been needed to build such a successful irrigation system as the one that was found in the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains may have come through travelers who frequently traversed the Silk Road corridor in the Xinjiang province.
Yuqi Li, a graduate student from Washington University, explained that there are already quite a few studies that have been published which have detailed the many different crops that were once grown along the Silk Road.
“There are numerous studies on the crops that probably spread through the Silk Road and the prehistoric Silk Road. Wheat and millets (foxtail and broomcorn) were probably the most important crops to understand trade and exchange along the prehistoric Silk Road. All of them are staple crops, so they had a large impact on people diet.”
While researchers had previously thought that the communities living in regions like this in China were mainly nomadic or pastoral, new studies have shown that this was not the case and that many of them were also adept at agriculture, and Li has called those who would have lived around the long-lost irrigation system agropastoralists.
Despite the fact that the irrigation system here would have undoubtedly been smaller than those that would have been found elsewhere in China at the time of the Han dynasty, what this discovery of the irrigation system along the Silk Road has shown is that the agropastoralist community who lived there would have actually been practicing a way of life that was much more “sustainable” than elsewhere.
“The systems built by the local agropastoralists were oriented towards conservation and efficiency. They were built in an energetically conservative way and they emphasized water storage rather than constant supply of water. The Han dynasty systems, however, were oriented towards maximizing the water supply with much less consideration of the labor cost and the efficiency of water use.”
With the exciting discovery of the irrigation system in China along the Silk Road corridor, archaeologists will undoubtedly have a vast amount of information at their disposal to learn more about the early communities of people who would have lived near the Tian Shan Mountains.