Paleoethnobotany Analysis

The prehistoric settlement Begash, located in the Semirech’ye region of eastern Kazakhstan, was excavated in 2002, 2005, and 2006 as part of the joint Kazakh-American Dzhungar Mountains Archaeology Project (DMAP). From at least 2500 BC, Begash was occupied by small groups of mobile pastoralists, whose economy was based on vertically transhumant sheep/goat herding in the Dzhungar Mts.  A major part of our excavation strategy was to sample the anthropogenic soils to document the way Bronze Age and later societies used plants, and to gain insights into the environmental conditions of various time periods during the life of the site.  Two types of soil samples — bulk samples and feature samples — were collected during excavations at Begash for the purpose of flotation. Bulk samples were collected from all cultural layers throughout the site to assess baseline botanical data.

Archaeological context and methods:
The prehistoric settlement Begash, located in the Semirech’ye region of eastern Kazakhstan, was excavated in 2002, 2005, and 2006 as part of the joint Kazakh-American Dzhungar Mountains Archaeology Project (DMAP). From at least 2500 BC, Begash was occupied by small groups of mobile pastoralists, whose economy was based on vertically transhumant sheep/goat herding in the Dzhungar Mts.  A major part of our excavation strategy was to sample the anthropogenic soils to document the way Bronze Age and later societies used plants, and to gain insights into the environmental conditions of various time periods during the life of the site.  Two types of soil samples — bulk samples and feature samples — were collected during excavations at Begash for the purpose of flotation. Bulk samples were collected from all cultural layers throughout the site to assess baseline botanical data.

Eight flotation samples were taken from phase 1a contexts, and five of these contained domesticated grains, including as wheat and broomcorn millet grains. The cremation cist was devoid of ceramics or metals and contained only funerary ashes and small bone fragments. Half the volume of the ash in the cist, as well as soil samples from the funerary fire-pit alongside the cist were floated and sieved for macrobotanical remains.  In the case of the phase 1a fire-pit, 9.5 Liters of soil were taken from the upper level and 2 Liters were taken from the lower level, while 30 Liters of the soil and ash remains from inside the burial cist were collected and processed for flotation.  Approximately 2-3 Liters of soil was sampled from each of the domestic hearths in phase 1a.

At Begash, the carbonized seeds of broomcorn millet and wheat were recovered through systematic flotation of the soil samples, using a simple bucket method.  A direct AMS date from the millet and wheat seeds dates them roughly between 2300-2100 BC. Nearly all the domesticated seeds were recovered from the burial context; flotation samples from domestic hearths of the same chronological period at Begash also contained broomcorn millet grains, though in significantly lower number (n=2). 

Currently, the remains from Begash predate by roughly 1500 years any other absolutely dated evidence of millet or wheat in the steppe zone and are the earliest reported anywhere in Central Eurasia from the Don River to the Hexi Corridor (China) (cf. Kuz’mina 1997, 141).  The documentation of domesticated grains at Begash establishes a key point of reference for the transmission of both wheat and millet along distinct routes—and possibly in different directions—through the mountains of Inner Asia and into the steppe territory by the late third millennium BC.


Discovery Highlights:

Wild herbaceous seeds were the predominant plant remains recovered in the phase 1a assemblage and were prevalent throughout the assemblages from all phases at Begash. The presence of wild herbaceous seeds at Begash could result from a number of taphonomic processes, including seed rain as well as human and animal foraging.

Wild herbaceous seeds could also have been introduced in domestic contexts through the burning of dung laden with seeds, a practice prevalent among ethnographically documented pastoralist communities of the Eurasian steppe.

A variety of wild taxa were identified at Begash, with Chenopodium album, Hyoscyamus sp., Galium sp., and Stipa-Type being most abundant from phase 1a.  Chenopodium is the most common seed type documented throughout all occupation phases at Begash.

At Begash, the carbonized seeds of broomcorn millet and wheat were recovered through systematic flotation of the soil samples, using a simple bucket method.  A direct AMS date from the millet and wheat seeds dates them roughly between 2300-2100 BC. Nearly all the domesticated seeds were recovered from the burial context; flotation samples from domestic hearths of the same chronological period at Begash also contained broomcorn millet grains, though in significantly lower number (n=2). 

Currently, the remains from Begash predate by roughly 1500 years any other absolutely dated evidence of millet or wheat in the steppe zone and are the earliest reported anywhere in Central Eurasia from the Don River to the Hexi Corridor

Relevant Publications:
(in press)FRACHETTI, Michael D., Spengler, Robert S., and Gayle J. Fritz.  Earliest Evidence of Broomcorn Millet and Wheat in the Central Eurasian Steppe Region. Antiquity (expected 2010)

2007  FRACHETTI, Michael D. and Alexei N. Mar’yashev.  Long-term settlement, mobility, and landscape formation of Eastern Eurasian pastoralists from 2500 CAL B.C.  Journal of Field Archaeology 32(3): 221-42