The Silk Road was an important trade route that channeled trade goods, people, plants, animals, and ideas across the continental interior of Eurasia, fueling biotic exchange and key social developments across the Old World. Nestled between the Pamir and Alay ranges at a baseline elevation of nearly 3000m, Kyrgyzstan's high Alay Valley forms a wide geographic corridor that comprised one of the primary channels of the ancient Silk Road. Recent archaeological survey reveals a millennia-long history of pastoral occupation of Alay from the early Bronze Age through the Medieval period, and a stratified Holocene sequence at the site of Chegirtke Cave. Faunal remains were recovered from test excavations as well as surface collection of material from recent marmot activity. Although recovered specimens were highly fragmented and mostly unidentifiable using traditional zooarchaeological methods, species identification via collagen mass fingerprinting (ZooMS) coupled with sex and first-generation hybrid identification through ancient DNA enabled preliminary characterization of the animal economy of Alay herders. Our new results indicate primary reliance on sheep at Chegirtke Cave (ca. 2200 BCE), with cattle and goat also present. The discovery of a large grinding stone at a spatially associated Bronze or Iron Age habitation structure suggests a mixed agropastoral economic strategy, rather than a unique reliance on domestic animals. Radiocarbon-dated faunal assemblages from habitation structures at nearby localities in the Alay Valley demonstrate the presence of domestic horse, as well as Bactrian camel during later periods. The current study reveals that agropastoral occupation of the high-mountain Alay corridor started millennia before the formal establishment of the Silk Road, and posits that ZooMS, when paired with radiocarbon dates and ancient DNA, is a powerful and cost-effective tool for investigating shifts in the use of animal domesticates in early pastoral economies.
- SOUTHERN KYRGYZSTAN