One of the world’s driest deserts, by the Silk Route, reveals its ancient irrigation system

taklamakan-ancient-irrigation-system_1Ancient farmlands with boulder-enclosures. Image Credit: Yuqi Li

In 2016, archaeologists discovered how the famed albeit arid site of Petra in Jordan flaunted its watered gardens almost 2,000 years ago. As it turns out, when it comes to the antithetical elements of aridness and verdancy, farmers in the borders of ancient China did one better, by basically transforming what is known as one of the world’s driest desert – the Taklamakan, into arable farmland. According to a recent study, this incredible endeavor (possibly harking back to circa 4th century AD) was possibly influenced by the techniques passed along by the diverse Silk Road travelers.

The arid area in focus here is known as the Mohuchahangoukou or MGK. It pertains to a dry patch in the barren foothills that form the northern border of the massive Taklamakan Desert, on the northwestern side of China’s Tian Shan Mountains. Now while the region is historically related to the Silk Route (and its precursors) that connected China with various western lands and realms, this area in itself seemingly showcases its fair share of unremarkable boulders and furrows.

However, beyond the apparent level, researchers (from the Washington University) were able to discern the remnants of small dams, cisterns, and irrigation canals positioned by the parcels of farmlands – all within the conventional perimeters of MGK. The first step of identification was actually carried by an image-capturing quadcopter drone that was able to fly just 100 ft over the aforementioned patchworks. This preliminary assessment was followed by a physical excavation that confirmed the presence of an ancient agricultural system that allowed folks to grow crops in one of the world’s driest region.


Aerial view of an ancient irrigation system. Image Courtesy of Archaeological Research in Asia.

Pertaining to these ‘folks’ in question, the researchers believe that they were local herders who used agricultural practices to supplement their food and livestock production. According to Yuqi Li, a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at the Washington University and the person responsible for discovering the site (with grant support from the National Geographic Society) –

As research on ancient crop exchanges along the Silk Road matures, archaeologists should investigate not only the crops themselves but also the suite of technologies, such as irrigation, that would have enabled ‘agropastoralists’ to diversify their economies. In recent years, more and more archaeologists started to realize that most of the so-called pastoralist/nomad communities in ancient Central Asia were also involved in agriculture. We think it’s more accurate to call them agropastoralists because having an agricultural component in their economy was a normal phenomenon instead of a transitional condition.

In that regard, the site was possibly used to grow a number of crops like millet, barley, wheat and perhaps even grapes. And the cultivation scope becomes all the more impressive when we consider that the area only receives less than 3 inches (6.6 centimeters) of rainfall annually, which is equivalent to about one-fifth of the water needed for growing even the drought-resistant varieties of wheat and millet. Simply put, MGK showcases the remnants of small-scale yet effective ancient irrigation systems that made use of the local stream that carries its seasonal trickle of snow-melt and paltry rainfall.


The current study focuses on the MGK4 plot. Map: Courtesy of Archaeological Research in Asia.

Now interestingly enough, there are a few scholars who believe that most of the crucial irrigation techniques were brought to this region by the troops of China’s Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). However, this debate in the academic community takes a new turn with the aforementioned discovery that mostly entails small-scale irrigation systems used by the locals. According to Li, similar types of techniques and scaled-down infrastructure have been found in Turkmenistan (dating from circa 3000 BC) and Iran (dating from circa 5000 BC). The Wadi Faynan farming community from late Bronze Age Jordan also used a comparable irrigation system composed of boulder-made canals, compact cisterns, and field-defined boundaries.

On the other hand, the Han Dynasty irrigation systems in the proximate Xinjiang region, known as the tuntian, utilized both wider and deeper linear channels tailored to covering large areas of more than 12,000 acres. By contrast, the MGK system with its scaled down features was contrived for irrigating around just 500 acres spread across seven parcels of farmland. When it boils down to numbers, the researchers have estimated that ancient laborers had to painstakingly move about 1.5 million cubic meters of dirt to build a Han Dynasty tuntian system capable of irrigating 2,500 acres. But the scale of the MGK system could be achieved by a smaller community of farmers who had to rely on scarce resources.


Narrow canals with less depths – found at the MGK site. Image Courtesy of Archaeological Research in Asia.

In essence, the study alludes to the possibility that these agropastoralists inhabiting the strip by the Silk Route were inspired by older farming techniques that were prevalent in Central Asia, as opposed to just Han China. To that end, Li commented –

The irrigation system at MGK4 suggests that, although the Han Dynasty brought sophisticated irrigation technology to Xinjiang, this set of technology did not replace the irrigation technology that appeared earlier in Xinjiang. Instead, it continued to be used in the post-Han period. We believe the reason was that this set of technology was well-adapted to the ecological and social conditions faced by local agropastoralist communities.

He also added –

Given recent research on the routes of early crop exchanges, it is possible that the technological ‘know-how’ of irrigation in this region originated with earlier agropastoral traditions in western Central Asia. As a fundamental technology that underpinned the agropastoralist societies in Xinjiang, irrigation probably spread to Xinjiang through the Inner Asian Mountain Corridor along with crops during prehistory.

The study was originally published in the December issue of the journal Archaeological Research in Asia.

Source: Washington University