Winding Routes and Precarious Switchbacks The Effect of Silk Road Development on Food Diversity

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Alana Michelle Krug-MacLeod


Silk Road developments increased interconnectivity through trade, but little is written about the resulting effect on food diversity. I used three methodologically, geographically and temporally diverse studies examining aspects of food during the Silk Road period to identify key factors affecting botanical and dietary food diversification in Central Asia during the first millennium. Archaeological and historical data from a study of Tashbulak (800-1100) revealed narrowing of genetic diversity accompanying cultivation, but also broadening of food options through trade and human interventions that created new plant varieties. A comparative study of the medieval period (500-1300) using human remains and published isotopic (δ13C and δ15N) records of urban and non-urban consumers in the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan region showed the Silk Road fostered greater overall food diversity than occurred in the Iron Age and early first millennium (1300 BCE- 600 CE). It also showed that, although during the medieval period enhanced trade opportunities facilitated a food-diversity trend, the positive movement was eroded by urban, insular agricultural communities with reified social structures. Foodways analysis of recipe books revealed that during the Mongol period (1200-1400), multi-cultural interaction enhanced dietary diversity, whereas changing power dynamics, tradition, and sense of place countered the trend. The Silk Road was not a unilinear path toward dietary diversity, but rather, a series of winding routes beset with potentially precarious switchbacks. Travelling back along the first millennium Silk Road uncovers critical turning points that can inform global food diversity approaches in the 21st century.