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From herds to empire: Biomolecular and zooarchaeological investigations of mobile pastoralism in the ancient Eurasian steppe

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - ASIAPAST (From herds to empire: Biomolecular and zooarchaeological investigations of mobile pastoralism in the ancient Eurasian steppe)

Reporting period: 2021-04-01 to 2022-09-30

The emergence of mobile pastoralism in the Eurasian steppe five thousand years ago marked a unique moment in human history, when for the first time, people relied almost exclusively on herd animals of sheep, goat, cattle, and horses for their daily food. Eventually, these mundane animals came to serve as dynamic symbols of community, negotiation, and power that helped give rise to nomadic states and empires that transformed Asia and Europe alike. ASIAPAST focuses on identifying the transmission pathways via which livestock moved into the steppe, understand how the scale of human social worlds changed with animal herding, and investigate the ways in which entirely new food sources provided by livestock, in particular dairy, shifted the seasonality and predictability of human diets. ASIAPAST articulates these developments with shifts in the ritual use of animals associated with charismatic stone monuments that epitomize ancient steppe dwellers. In particular, ASIAPAST explores when and where livestock became more than a food source but a vital means to political expression, and looks to understand how ritual treatment of animals brought together widely dispersed mobile pastoralists and facilitated socio-political negotiations. ASIAPAST recovers these dietary, mobility, and ritual histories of pastoralists and their herd animal, recorded in bones, teeth, and pottery, and unlocks that information using ancient genomics, proteomics and isotopic analyses.
Key WP 1 results include new information on ancient husbandry practices and animal population turnover in both the Eurasian Steppe belt and the Mongolian steppe. Zooarchaeological analyses indicate horses were of primary importance at some Eneolithic settlements in Altai with a minor contribution from cattle, while sheep were the primary focus of animal production throughout the Eurasian steppe. Faunal demographic analyses remains indicate intensive wool production in densely inhabited settlements sites in northern Kazakhstan where metals were forged, suggesting animals fibers were an important form of wealth generation that supported nascent political structures. Biometrical analyses have revealed a marked turnover in steppe cattle populations across both regions which coincides with the establishment of trans-regional exchange networks during the Iron Age. In Mongolia, zooarchaeological results demonstrate a shift in the symbolic role of animals in mortuary arenas, with horses increasingly replaced by sheep, goats, and cattle, suggesting livestock, rather than horses, became a means to broadcast prestige.

WP2 results included isotopic data measured from human remains from Mongolia indicating herders consumed diets consisting primarily of terrestrial animal proteins. Bulk carbon isotope analyses of human remains also indicate that millet came into use extraordinarily late in Mongolia, coinciding with the rise of the Xiongnu empire. Strontium and oxygen isotopes analyses of ancient human teeth from Mongolia demonstrate regional circulation of Xiongnu intermediary elites that served to consolidate the power of the first ‘state on horseback’. Zooarchaeological analyses have revealed a shift in the importance of animals in ancient mortuary monuments in Mongolia, reflecting a shift in role of animals as a means of political negotiation. Stable isotope analyses of animal remains from Mongolia demonstrate wide variation in herd management strategies, including winter foddering and seasonal mobility. Stable isotope analyses of late prehistoric animal remains from Uzbekistan reveal strong influence of local environmental inputs in their isotopic composition, likely overriding the imprint of human animal management activities.

Main results from WP3 from organic residue analyses of pottery suggest that animal meats and fats had an outsized importance in the northern Kazakh steppe with little or no contribution from dairy, but dairy was an important food in the drier southern Kazakh steppe. Organic residue and biomarker analyses of pottery from Altai reveal complex food processing activities involving the use of unexpectedly diverse food resources throughout the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages. Proteomics analyses of dental calculus from Bronze and Iron Age human remains from Mongolia identify only uneven consumption of dairy across the Mongolian steppe despite previous work, based on a small sample size, asserting that dairy consumption was a key part of Bronze Age diets there. Initial proteomic analyses for dairy proteins (beta lactoglobulin) hint at marked temporal shifts in human dairy consumption in the Russian Altai and also Kazakhstan.

For WP4, ancient DNA analyses work on goats indicate that goats spread along two transmission pathways into the Eurasian steppe, the first along a northern route along the open steppe belt (northern Kazakhstan) and the second along the Inner Asian Mountain Corridor via the Tian Shian mountain range. WP4 results also include genetic evidence for the earliest domesticated sheep in the Altai at ca 3000 BC associated with the Afanasievo culture. Cytochrome b work confirms the persistence of sheep over goats in the Altai region.
In addition to expanding beyond the state of the art regarding the the dietary, food processing, and mobility histories of ancient pastoralists and proximal hunter-gatherers in the Eurasian steppe. ASIAPAST also contributes to new methodological developments that further enhance data acquisition for the project and also for the archaeological sciences as a whole. Specifically, new protocol developments for compound specific-analyses of amino-acids that increases accuracy of determined isotope values and sample measurement flow through a a two-point normalisation method for GC-C-IRMS determination of amino acid δ15N values using three sets of mixed amino acid standards of known isotopic composition.

ASIAPAST also ensured maximization of proteome recovered of beta lactoglobulin and alpha caseins in human dental calculus through development of a new paramagnetic bead approach that tests the influence of demineralization acid on recovered proteome complexity and sequence coverages matched for significant proteins. This work found that a protocol utilizing EDTA combined with paramagnetic beads increased proteome complexity, in some cases doubling the number of unique peptides and number of proteins matched, compared to protocols involving the use of HCl and either acetone precipitation or ultrafiltration. Altogether, this development increased sequence coverage of dietary milk proteins and has further implications for the study of diseases within these ancient populations by increasing the number of proteins of bacterial origin recovered from dental calculus.

Expected results until the end of the project include isolating establishing where and when hunter-gatherer and pastoralist mobility patterns changed and under what conditions, determine if there were regional distinctions in the demographic composition of livestock herds and the husbandry strategies used to manage them, document whether shifts in the intensity of processing of ruminant fat, milk fat, and fish oil correspond with changes in pastoralist dietary intake, and establish when and where the distinction between livestock as a primarily subsistence resource and livestock means to ideological and political expression emerged.
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