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Silk Road nomads were the original foodies

"Our research shows that nomadic communities were probably the real movers and shakers of food culture," researcher Taylor Hermes said.

By
Brooks Hays
Local grains are still sold on the streets of the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar in Xinjiang, China. Photo by Michael Frachetti/Washington University
Local grains are still sold on the streets of the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar in Xinjiang, China. Photo by Michael Frachetti/Washington University

March 27 (UPI) -- New research suggests nomadic populations in Medieval Central Asia, between the 2nd and 16th centuries AD, ate more dynamic diets than sedentary Silk Road populations.

Though most research into the Silk Road frames the phenomenon in terms of traded goods, the route through Medieval Central Asia was formed by interactions between nomadic and sedentary population.

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Isotopic analysis of human remains has helped scientists determine the dietary habits of different Silk Road populations.

"The 'Silk Road' has been generally understood in terms of valuable commodities that moved great distances, but the people themselves were often left out," Taylor Hermes, a researcher at Kiel University in Germany, said in a news release. "Food patterns are an excellent way to learn about the links between culture and environment, uncovering important human experiences in this great system of connectivity."

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The new research, published this week in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests nomads were the original foodies, adopting a variety of food traditions and tapping into a range nutritional resources. Those living in permanent settlements were more stuck in their ways, mostly reliant on local grains.

"Historians have long thought that urban centers along the Silk Road were cosmopolitan melting pots where culinary and cultural influences from far off places came together, but our research shows that nomadic communities were probably the real movers and shakers of food culture," Hermes said.

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Scientists analyzed isotopic ratios inside human remains collected from a variety of nomadic and urban burial sites in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, all of them dated between the 2nd to 13th centuries AD. The burial sites were linked with a range of community and population types, as well a variety of topographies and climates.

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"By measuring carbon isotope ratios, we can estimate the percentage of someone's diet that came from specific categories of plants, such as wheat and barley or millet," Hermes said. "Millets have a very distinctive carbon isotope signature, and differing ratios of nitrogen isotopes tell us about whether someone ate a mostly plant-based diet or consumed foods from higher up on the food chain, such as meat and milk from sheep or goats."

The results of the isotopic analysis not only challenge the idea of pastoral nomads eating only the meat and milk of their livestock, they also suggest nomadic populations were essential to the cross-cultural exchange along the Silk Road.

According to Michael Frachetti, associate professor of anthropology at Washington University, St. Louis, mobile communities were "the essential fiber that fueled social networks and vectors of cultural changes."

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