The foods we eat have a deep and often surprising past. From almonds and apples to tea and rice, many foods that we consume today have histories that can be traced out of prehistoric Central Asia along the tracks of the Silk Road to kitchens in Europe, America, China, and elsewhere in East Asia. The exchange of goods, ideas, cultural practices, and genes along these ancient routes extends back five thousand years, and organized trade along the Silk Road dates to at least Han Dynasty China in the second century BC. Balancing a broad array of archaeological, botanical, and historical evidence, Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat presents the fascinating story of the origins and spread of agriculture across Inner Asia and into Europe and East Asia. Through the preserved remains of plants found in archaeological sites, Robert N. Spengler III identifies the regions where our most familiar crops were domesticated and follows their routes as people carried them around the world.
In the following interview with Eric Schmidt, UC Press Ancient World History Editor, Spengler discusses his research and study of botanical remains at archaeological sites, the agricultural landscapes of the Silk Road, and the unique history of the apple.
What inspired you to research and write on the history of the foods we eat?
Food, and cuisine more broadly, are intimately part of who we are; the taste of an apple pie, apple cider, apple tart, or apple turnover, can take us back to memories of our childhood, stir up nationalistic sentiments, and connect us to a broader community with a shared set of memories associated with that taste. Shockingly, few people seem to know the narrative behind the most familiar plants in their kitchens. Despite our close cultural affiliations with the apple, the story of its journey across Eurasia and its transformations over the past several millennia are largely mysteries. The only way to answer these questions is through an integrated research agenda spanning the humanities, social sciences, and biological sciences. My winding academic path allowed me to dabble in all these fields and set the scholarly foundations for this book. I have spent nearly 15 years studying botanical remains in archaeological sites across Central Asia and have focused on the domestication and dispersal of the plants that we are all most familiar with.
Why do people continue to be so fascinated with the idea of the Silk Road?
When we read about the prehistory of Eurasia, the focus tends to be on the major agricultural centers – East Asia and the Chinese dynasties, South Asia and the Indus, southwest Asia and the Mesopotamian and later Persian cultures, and southern Europe in the Classical period. It sometimes bewilders people to conceive of the vast world of people in between these centers, including massive cities and entire empires that often get overlooked in the history books. People readily envision the Silk Road as a massive race across the desert sands or grasslands to get merchandise to markets located in one of these iconic ancient farming centers. I have strived, in this book, to paint a very different picture of the Silk Road, to set aside the idea of a road that connected two disparate points, but rather to think about the Silk Road more like the spikes on a wagon wheel, with Central Asia at the heart of a complex network of interaction and exchange.
Many scholars challenge what they see as overly romanticized, simplistic notions of the “Silk Road.” Why is that?
I have attempted to separate myth from reality in this book. There is no agreed-upon definition of the Silk Road, and scholars have very different views of what the scale of the trade was, what geographic area it covered, and what time periods we can ascribe it to. I use an extremely flexible definition in this book – I envision the Silk Road as a process of increasing exchange and interconnection across Europe and Asia. I push the definition back to at least five millennia before today, to the time when the first crops of East Asian origin were cultivated in the same field as crops of West Asian origin. In this regard, I step away from the mythical image of a small group of merchants on camel back crossing thousands of kilometers of desert and mountains. We do have historical sources attesting to commercial activities in this region over the past two millennia, but the term ‘Silk Road’ is a recent construct. The incorporation of new methods in the archaeological sciences to Silk Road studies is helping to parse out myth from reality.
The apple is in many ways the “poster child” for your book, as I’ve heard you say. What’s so special about the apple?
The apple is a highly charismatic fruit. It has been adopted as an important cultural symbol among people in northern Europe and America. But it shocks many Americans to learn that the ancestors of the fruit in their apple pie originated in the mountains of southern Kazakhstan. Similarly, many pub goers in the southern UK would have trouble believing that the origin of their cider was off in a land they may not have heard of. Beyond originating in the Tien Shan Mountains, along the core artery of the ancient Silk Road, the trade routes themselves gave rise to our modern beloved fruit. Genetic studies have demonstrated that the apple is a hybrid of at least four wild apple species. Three of these wild apples had large fruits before humans came along, and they represented easy targets or ‘low-hanging fruit’ for early foragers. People were likely maintaining the populations of these wild apple trees for thousands of years before they started moving the seeds along the Silk Road. Eventually, as people started planting apples trees across Eurasia, they brought these four wild populations into contact for the first time since before the Ice Age. When they came into contact, bees naturally pollinated them, and the resulting offspring represented distinct hybrids. These hybrids had traits that set them apart from either parent line, notably larger fruits. The apples in our produce markets today are the descendants of these Silk Road hybrids.
We tend to think of exchange as happening between “east” and “west,” but your book highlights how much we owe to cultural exchange going north and south, between South and Central Asia especially. Can you say more about that?
The trade routes of the Silk Road went in every direction, at various time periods they stretched north into the Altai and fueled the establishment of the elites in the Pazyryk culture, and they reached south along the Indus to the sea. There was never one route, nor were there set start or end points. However, when discussing the dispersal of agricultural crops, east and west movements are, almost always, far more rapid than north and south movements. It often takes a cultivated crop, hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of years of cultivation on the edge of its prime ecological zones before it evolves new traits to survive in a different ecozone. The northern spread of crops into Europe or into Central Asia required major evolutionary changes in the plants, they developed traits for frost tolerance, they lost their internal regulation system for understanding when to set seed, and they evolved more rapid and synchronized growing seasons. Only after these new traits became dominant in the cultivated population could farmers plant fields at more northerly sites.
Most popular works tend to represent Central Asia, as a whole, as some sort of grassy highway, populated by nomadic peoples parasitic on neighboring agricultural communities. Additionally, the deserts and the mountains are at the center of your book. Can you elaborate on the landscapes of the Silk Road?
Two of the biggest myths that dominate archaeological and historical studies in Central Asia are the idea of a ‘steppe highway’ and a ‘nomadic world’. If we were to go to central Kazakhstan today, into the center of the vast Eurasian grasslands, we would see very few people. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that people were concentrating on the steppe in the past. The low density of archaeological material on these open prairies belies the idea of large populations of warrior nomads wandering across a highway of grass. However, there is an astonishing density of archaeological remains across the rich mountain foothills of Inner Asia. Increasingly, as archaeobotanical methods become more prominent in these regions, the sites that were once thought to have been occupied by highly specialized nomads are providing evidence for crop cultivation and, in many cases, elaborate farming systems. The idea of an empire of great warrior Scythian nomads is simply crumbling in the face of scientific inquiry.
Why is Central Asia so vital to the story you tell? Why does it so often get excluded from these “global stories”?
Central Asia was the crossroads of the ancient world for five millennia; some of the largest cities and empires in the ancient world were located there. The people of this region in the past shaped the trajectory of human history, not only by fostering the spread of innovations along the Silk Road, but also through innovations of their own, including the domestication of certain fruit trees. Parts of Central Asia were centers of intellectual thought during the Islamic Golden Age, and massive fortified palaces with Persianate gardens were erected for various Turkic rulers. However, starting with the increased focus on nautical trade rather than overland trade in the thirteenth century – and in the face of consecutive Turkic military advances, most notably the Mongol invasion – Central Asia gradually lost its prominence as an imperial center. The destruction of irrigation systems, salination of soils, and the deforestation of the mountain foothills, likely contributed to the fall of Inner Asia. The final blow was undoubtedly colonial advances from Europe – starting with the Russian Imperial conquests and resulting in the Great Game.