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Near East livestock ate grain from China nearly 5,000 years ago

By Brooks Hays
Near East livestock ate grain from China nearly 5,000 years ago
A herder on horseback leads a flock of sheep and goats through a field of grass in Kazakhstan's Dzhungar Mountains. Photo by Paula Dupuy/WUSTL

Sept. 4 (UPI) -- Millet grains first cultivated in China were being fed to livestock domesticated in the Near East as early as 2700 B.C.

When scientists analyzed DNA from sheep and goat remains recovered from the settlement of Dali in eastern Kazakhstan, they found evidence the livestock were domesticated in the Near East. They also found evidence the animals were being fed millet grain first domesticated in China.

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Dali is situated on what researchers have dubbed the Inner Asia Mountain Corridor, a string of settlements that played host to cultural and genetic exchange during the Early and Late Bronze Age.

Researchers described the connection between Near East livestock and Chinese grains this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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"The most important finding for me is the presence of a well-developed pastoralist economy using Chinese millets at 2700 B.C.," study co-author Taylor Hermes, researcher at Kiel University in Germany, said in a news release. "This is quite an early date for the domesticated animals to be present in the region, and it is also the earliest dated evidence that millet had spread out of China. This suggests that it took domesticated sheep and goats from the Near East to have spread all the way to China before millet began spreading widely."

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It was the spread of newly domesticated plants and animals through Inner Asia's grassland plains that sparked the network of trade routes that would mature to become the famed Silk Road. The timing of this evolution is still not well understood.

"Our previous research showed archaeobotanical remains of both wheat and millet around 2300 B.C. in the highlands of Kazakhstan, but there was little concrete evidence to show whether these were trade items or farmed locally," said study co-author Michael Frachetti, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis. "We were left to speculate about the integration of intensive farming among Early Bronze Age herders in the region, and if these grains made it into their diet."

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Because human remains dating to the third millennia B.C. are rare, researchers were forced to look to animal bones for evidence of human behavior.

"The evidence we found of people foddering sheep, goats and cattle with millet at various intensities suggests a huge degree of flexibility in food production," Hermes said. "It may very well be the case that people who lived at Dali and Begash shifted their herding and farming strategies year-to-year depending on environment or social circumstances."

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