Skip to main content
European Commission logo print header

A Silk Road in the Palaeolithic: Reconstructing Late Pleistocene Hominin Dispersals and Adaptations in Central Asia

Article Category

Article available in the following languages:

How prehistoric humans used silk roads to move, mix and evolve

New research provides evidence on how prehistoric humans in Central Asia utilised ancient trade routes to both survive and thrive during a period of intense climate change.

Society icon Society

Hear the term ‘silk road’ and one is likely to think of the trans-Eurasian trade routes that connected East and West during antiquity and the early Middle Ages. But what if this silk road was an extension of another silk road – one that crisscrossed Central Asia during the much earlier Palaeolithic period? “Not only was this period defined by a rapidly changing climate that included multiple ice ages, it is also of fundamental importance in human history,” says Radu Iovita, an anthropological archaeologist now at New York University. It was during the Palaeolithic period that humans evolved and colonised Central Asia and beyond – and they did so via a network of silk roads connecting the Fergana Valley in modern-day Uzbekistan to the Altai mountains in southern Siberia. “Geographic and climatic factors suggest that this region could have served as a prehistoric corridor for the rapid exchange and mixing of archaic and modern humans, ultimately resulting in today’s Asian, North American and Australasian populations,” explains Iovita. A sound theory, for sure. Unfortunately, there has been a noted lack of evidence to support it – that is until now. With the support of the EU-funded PALAEOSILKROAD project, Iovita is finding evidence on how prehistoric humans used silk roads to move, mix and evolve. The project received support from the European Research Council and was hosted by the University of Tübingen.

Humans were here

With a focus on finding new archaeological sites, the project team headed out into the field and started digging. “Kazakhstan is unique in that many of its cave sites have very thick packets of sediments, meaning we had to get through metres of dirt before we even arrived at the level of Stone Age occupations,” notes Iovita. Time-consuming and frustrating, researchers decided to turn to technology. Using ground-penetrating radar, electric resistivity tomography and a penetrometer, an old archaeological standby consisting of a steel rod with a hammer weight, the team began finding what they were looking for. Using these tools, plus a lot of field walking and talking to locals, the team ultimately discovered 95 new, unstudied caves and rock shelters. One of these caves provided evidence of early occupation dating back to the arrival of modern humans in the area, whereas another suggests they stayed there even during the coldest and driest periods. “We now know that humans were here during the Palaeolithic period, now we want to know who they were, how long they were here for, and where they went.” To help answer some of these questions, the project team collected samples to look for ancient DNA, and they are hoping to excavate and test additional sites.

Perseverance gets results

While there’s more work to be done, Iovita is particularly proud of his field team and their work during this project. “This kind of work is psychologically and physically demanding,” he says. “Yet, even when we weren’t finding much, they never gave up.” It’s because of this perseverance that we now have a better understanding of how prehistoric humans utilised ancient trade routes to both survive and thrive during this period of intense climate change.


PALAEOSILKROAD, palaeolithic period, prehistoric humans, silk roads, climate change, ice ages, archaeological sites, archaeologist

Discover other articles in the same domain of application