Thursday, 14 May 2009

Grapes from the Tarim Basin

Jiang, Hong-en a young archaeobotanist at the Institute of Botany in Beijing, has been working on plants remains from dessciated tombs in the Tarim Basin in western China. He has been progressively expanding of list of archaeological plants from the region, often one species at a time, and the contribution has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science (for July2009, but now online). As with his previous studies, this find is meticulously documented with excellent plant anatomical images, in this case anatomical thin sections. This is the first true domesticated grape vine (vinifera), in China, although native wild grapes (Vitis spp.) were widely used since the Neolithic in central China.

Previously Jiang has published a number of articles, each devoted to the careful documentation of single species, from the tombs at Yanghai or those at Sampula (both cemeteries of late centuries BC in the Tarim Basin, Xinjiang).
  • Jiang, H.E., et al., 2008. A consideration of the involucre remains of Coix lacryma-jobi L. (Poaceae) in the Sampula Cemetery (2000 years BP), Xinjiang, China. Journal of Archaeological Science 35, 1311–1316.
  • Jiang, H.E., et al 2007a. The discovery of Capparis spinosa L. (Capparidaceae) in the Yanghai Tombs (2800 years B.P.), NW China, and its medicinal implications. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 113, 409– 420.
  • Jiang, H.E., et al., 2007b. Fruits of Lithospermum officinale L. (Boraginaceae) used as an early plant decoration (2500 years BP) in Xinjiang, China. Journal of Archaeological Science 34, 167–170.
  • Jiang, H.E., et al. 2006. A new insight into Cannabis sativa (Cannabaceae) utilization from 2500-year-old Yanghai Tombs, Xinjiang, China. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 108, 414–422.
The latter study, of Cannabis, has some particularly nice SEMs. The botanical side of this work is impeccable...

Nevertheless, I must express some frustration with the archaeological part of this work, as we lack any sense of assemblages, of which species are occurring together in which tombs, or how many tombs have been sampled and how often do various things occur. Was the Cannabis a one-off or routine? Were wheat or barley or millet finds part of the standard offering? Doing a quick tally from Jiang's papers, we can conclude that the taxa-lists are as follows, (but I suspect these are very imcomplete lists!)

Sampula Cemetery (reported by Jiang): Coix lacrhymajobi (job’s tears used as beads), Amygdalus persicus (peach), Armeniaca vulgaris (apricot), Panicum miliaceum, Hordeum vulgare var. nudum, Jugland regia, and Elaengus. Previous work reported wheat (recorded in a secondary source, Mallory & Mair Tarim Mummies)

The Yanghai tombs (reported by Jiang): Capparis spinosa, Cannabis sativa, Lithospermum officinale (used as beads). Wood and bedding materials include Populus, Salix and Phragmites

Earlier reports from other cemetery sites in the region include Wheat (presumably hexaploid, but one would like to see this confirmed with rachis remains ?) further north at Tort Erik and Chong Bangh, both cemeteries perhaps as old as 1500 BC. Of interest is the apparently exclusive presence of wheat on these two earlier sites, although barley is reported from Qizilchoqa (the only source for these, in English, so far as I know is the passing notes in the Mallory and Mair’s Tarim Mummies book, 2000).

So, we still have some waiting to do before the archaeobotany of westernmost China can be grasped in a holistic sense.