US-Mongolia-Pakistan glacial archaeology project gets successfully funded by CAORC

We are pleased to note that the project led by Dr. Muhammad Zahir of Hazara University (Pakistan) and Dr. William Taylor of the University of Colorado-Boulder (USA), partnering with the American Center for Mongolian Studies, to document and preserve artifacts melting from mountain ice in northern Pakistan and western Mongolia, has been awarded the Multi-Country Research Fellowship and Mary Ellen Lane Award from the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC). We congratulate the project’s two principal investigators and wish them success in their archaeological research into the earliest prehistory of pastoral societies across Inner Asia.

The Indus River flows through the mountains of northern Pakistan, with mountain ice visible in the distance.

Emerging scientific research demonstrates the tremendous transformative impact of pastoralist people in montane Central Asia on global prehistory. The domestication of large animal livestock (like the yak), and the dispersal of others (like horse, sheep, goat, and cattle) from western Eurasia into the Himalayan Plateau and the Mongolian Steppe transformed these areas into thriving centers of culture, civilization, and transcontinental empire. The migration corridors of pastoral peoples ultimately became the core of the Silk Road trade routes connecting China with Central Asia and beyond. Herding cultures helped to create a globalized world system, spreading plants, animals trade goods, ideas, religions, and even major diseases, such as the Black Plague, across the ancient world for the first time. And owing to their special role as hotspots for rainfall, pasture, and biodiversity, large mountain chains – the Altai, Tian Shan, Pamir, Karakorum, Himalaya, and Hindu Kush – hosted and supported the early pastoral cultures that produced these crucial social and ecological transformations.

Preliminary discoveries from fieldwork in the Yasin Valley, northern Pakistan, including megalithic constructions (above) and rock art sites depicting wild or domestic sheep and goat near glacial margins (below)

Unfortunately, the archaeological record of the earliest pastoral societies in the high mountains of interior Eurasia is meager. Many ancient herders created material culture made from animal products and other perishable organic materials, which rarely survived centuries of degradation. In large mountain chains, high-energy geologic processes, animal grazing, and remote locations further contribute to the scarcity of archaeological evidence from early pastoral prehistory. Nonetheless, recent discoveries and analysis of archaeological materials from the Tian Shan and Alay Mountains of southern Kyrgyzstan show that domestic sheep spread to this region from Mesopotamia and the Levant by as early as 6000 BCE. Meanwhile, other new archaeological data from across interior Eurasia, from the mountains of Pakistan to the Mongolian Steppe, raise the possibility that these early domestic livestock spread to many areas of South and East Asia through the mountain belts of the continental interior, much earlier than previously recognized.

Ancient animal remains emerge from a melting glacier margin in western Mongolia, alongside ancient organic artifacts of the area’s first hunters and herders.

Glacial and ice patch research presents a new and unexplored dataset for understanding the emergence and impact of pastoralism on early societies in montane Asia. Across the globe, permanent snow and ice features in mountain areas act as cultural and ecological magnets – providing an important source of freshwater, hosting unique plant communities, and attracting big game animals in the summer months. When organic artifacts, such as the archaeological signature of early herders, are lost within the ice, they can be preserved for centuries or millennia. Through archaeological investigation and pilot study of melting mountain ice in western Mongolia and northern Pakistan, this collaborative partnership between ACMS, Hazara University, the National Museum of Mongolia, and the University of Colorado will test the hypothesis that early emergence of herding economies in the high mountain zones of Inner Asia was linked to early dispersals from Central Asia. Via recovery and scientific study of rare pastoral artifacts, the project will clarify the origins of an economic system that transformed global prehistory, and mitigate the urgent loss of scientific data and cultural heritage caused by climate warming.

Archaeologists document artifacts emerging from the melting ice in western Mongolia.

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