Seeing the wood for the trees: active human–environmental interactions in arid northwestern China

Shen, Hui; Spengler, Robert N.; Zhou, Xinying; Betts, Alison; Jia, Peter Weiming; Zhao, Keliang; Li, Xiaoqiang

Due largely to demographic growth, agricultural populations during the Holocene became increasingly more impactful ecosystem engineers. Multidisciplinary research has revealed a deep history of human–environmental dynamics; however, these pre-modern anthropogenic ecosystem transformations and cultural adaptions are still poorly understood. Here, we synthesis anthracological data to explore the complex array of human–environmental interactions in the regions of the prehistoric Silk Road. Our results suggest that these ancient humans were not passively impacted by environmental change; rather, they culturally adapted to, and in turn altered, arid ecosystems. Underpinned by the establishment of complex agricultural systems on the western Loess Plateau, people may have started to manage chestnut trees, likely through conservation of economically significant species, as early as 4600 BP. Since ca. 3500 BP, with the appearance of high-yielding wheat and barley farming in Xinjiang and the Hexi Corridor, people appear to have been cultivating Prunus and Morus trees. We also argue that people were transporting preferred coniferous woods over long distances to meet the need for fuel and timber. After 2500 BP, people in our study area were making conscious selections between wood types for craft production and were also clearly cultivating a wide range of long-generation perennials, showing a remarkable traditional knowledge tied into the arid environment. At the same time, the data suggest that there was significant deforestation throughout the chronology of occupation, including a rapid decline of slow-growing spruce forests and riparian woodlands across northwestern China. The wood charcoal dataset is publicly available at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.8158277https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.8158277 (Shen et al., 2023).

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Shen, Hui / Spengler, Robert N. / Zhou, Xinying / et al: Seeing the wood for the trees: active human–environmental interactions in arid northwestern China. 2024. Copernicus Publications.

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