13 Sep 2023
 | 13 Sep 2023
Status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal ESSD.

Seeing the Wood for the Trees: Active human-environmental interactions in arid northwest China

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

Abstract. 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, but 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/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 the preferred coniferous woods over long distance 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 the northwest China. The wood charcoal dataset is publicly available at (Shen et al., 2023).

Hui Shen et al.

Status: open (until 31 Oct 2023)

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Hui Shen et al.

Data sets

Dataset of archaeobotanical wood charcoal records from northwest China Hui Shen, Robert N. Spengler, Xinying Zhou, Alison Betts, Peter Weiming Jia, Keliang Zhao, Xiaoqiang Li

Hui Shen et al.


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Short summary
Understanding how early farmers adapted to their environments is important for how we respond to the changing climate. Here, we present wood charcoal records from northwest China to explore human-environment interactions. Our data suggest that people started managing chestnut trees around 4600 BP, and cultivating fruit trees and transporting coniferous trees since 3500 BP. After 2500 BP, people have established horticultural systems, showing that they were actively adapted to the environment.