BMAC: long term interaction between agricultural communities and steppe pastoralists in Central Asia

Interesting new paper Mixing metaphors: sedentary-mobile interactions and local-global connections in prehistoric Turkmenistan, by Rouse & Cerasetti, Antiquity (2018) 92:674-689.

Relevant excerpts (emphasis mine):

The Murghab alluvial fan in southern Turkmenistan witnessed some of the earliest encounters between sedentary farmers and mobile pastoralists from different cultural spheres. During the late third and early second millennia BC, the Murghab was home to the Oxus civilisation and formed a central node in regional exchange networks (Possehl 2005; Kohl 2007). The Oxus civilisation (or the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex) relied on intensive agriculture to support a hierarchical society and specialised craft production of metal and precious stone objects for prestige display and long-distance exchange (Sarianidi 1981; Hiebert 1994). By c. 1800 BC (the local Late Bronze Age), the internal coherence of the Oxus civilisation began to break down, along with the inter-regional exchange networks; the settlement structure of the Murghab shifted from a tiered system of urban centres, villages and hamlets, to a more dispersed pattern of smaller-scale agricultural settlements (Salvatori 2008). Contemporaneous evidence for small campsites (with a distinct ceramic tradition) suggests an influx of mobile pastoralists from the Central Eurasian Steppe and foothills (Cerasetti 1998; Masson 2002; Cattani et al. 2008). This striking combination of the sites and material cultures of both late Oxus farmers and ‘steppe’ pastoralists spans more than 500 years of Murghab prehistory (Salvatori 2008; Rouse & Cerasetti 2017).

The mixed farmer-pastoralist archaeological record of the Murghab has influenced competing interpretations of Later Bronze Age socio-political and economic relationships. Some scholars argue that the ‘collapse’ of the Oxus civilisation was at least partly due to the hostile incursions of nomads (Marushchenko 1956; Kuz’mina&Lyapin 1984; Vinogradova & Kuz’mina 1996). Others suggest that pastoralists took advantage of the Murghab’s crumbling power structure by moving into the area, but occupying only marginal, agriculturally unsuitable zones (P’yankova 1993), or merging with the late Oxus farming populations (Masson 2002). These models broadly follow ‘trade or raid’ paradigms of farmer-pastoralist interaction, whereby the perceived shortages of pastoralist communities force them to rely on agriculturalists for subsistence, material and cultural inputs (Kroeber 1947; Ferdinand 2003; Potts 2014). Such models may explain certain cases of Near Eastern pastoral economic specialisation, or historical contact scenarios between Eurasian steppe and agricultural communities on China’s northern frontier (Lattimore 1979; Barfield 2001; Alizadeh 2009; Khazanov 2009). Near Eastern and Eurasian interaction paradigms, however, fit increasingly poorly with the archaeological evidence for early farmer-pastoralist encounters in southern Central Asia.

We present data from four Murghab pastoralist campsites dating to the third to second millennia BC, restricting our discussion to the materials and practices employed by Oxus-period pastoralists to navigate shifting social, political and economic networks. Our aim is to highlight how variable strategies broadly identified under the rubric of ‘agropastoralism’ can be teased apart to recognise mechanisms of social boundary-making. Individually, these four sites present chronologically and locally distinct snapshots of farmer-pastoralist interactions across different realms of exchange (e.g. subsistence, technology and ideology); they provide examples of how pastoralists and farmers mutually participated in each other’s material and social norms. Together, these sites reveal how varied farmer-pastoralist engagement with technology and material culture did not lead inevitably to the assimilation of the two groups; rather, they worked consciously within existing systems of cultural practice to maintain distinct ‘farmer’ and ‘pastoralist’ identities, potentially over a 900-year period.

oxus-bmac-pastoralism
Region of Central Asia as discussed in this article. Areas traditionally identified with farming-dependent Oxus communities and non-Oxus mobile pastoralists are shown, acknowledging that in both areas mixed agropastoral practices have occurred in the past and present.

Conclusions

(…)First, the results indicate a cultural model of ‘being’ a pastoralist that was maintained actively over hundreds of years, in part by its material difference from that of local farmers. Second, the variability of materials, technologies and practices shared at these campsites suggests that no hegemonic power controlled trade relationships or regulated economic dependency between Oxus farmers and non-Oxus mobile pastoralists in the Murghab. Indeed, current data indicate that pastoralist occupation in the Murghab intensified during the waning of Oxus political centralisation, suggesting that the loosening of state-level structures provided the opportunity for intercultural interactions, rather than interactions being promoted or facilitated from the top. Finally, in the removal of broad-brush narratives that polarise ‘the steppe’ and ‘the sown’, and the integration of evidence suggesting that mobile pastoralists influenced the crop systems of farmers in southern Central Asia (Spengler et al. 2014b), these four sites allow us to recognise the means by which farmers and pastoralists re-shaped cultural institutions while reinforcing the meaningfulness of the associated social categories. Current work in the Murghab complements detailed studies of pastoralists in other Eurasian contexts (e.g. Frachetti 2008; Rogers 2012; Honeychurch 2015) in beginning to unravel simplistic notions of broad cross-cultural exchanges in Eurasian prehistory and the political entities traditionally seen as directing them.

The whole article is very interesting, and the four sites studied and their relevance for the said interactions are described in detail, and in chronological order. If you have the opportunity, read it.

I found it interesting that the article mentions the traditional scholarly opposition of agriculturalists vs. pastoralists (‘civilised/barbarian’, ‘state/tribe’ and ‘centre/periphery’) as an idea of Eurasian origin, and having deep ‘Western’ roots. Reading what many OIT (or anti-AIT, as they like to call themselves) supporters write, it seems to me as though they have entirely accepted and in fact are eager to promote this ‘Western’ narrative from the mid-20th century…

Steppe MLBA

This is what Narasimhan et al. (2018) had to say about the BMAC – Steppe pastoralists interaction:

We document a southward spread of genetic ancestry from the Eurasian Steppe, correlating with the archaeologically known expansion of pastoralist sites from the Steppe to Turan in the Middle Bronze Age (2300-1500 BCE). These Steppe communities mixed genetically with peoples of the Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) whom they encountered in Turan (primarily descendants of earlier agriculturalists of Iran), but there is no evidence that the main BMAC population contributed genetically to later South Asians. Instead, Steppe communities integrated farther south throughout the 2nd millennium BCE, and we show that they mixed with a more southern population that we document at multiple sites as outlier individuals exhibiting a distinctive mixture of ancestry related to Iranian agriculturalists and South Asian hunter-gathers.

yamna-steppe-emba-mlba-cloud
Narasimhan et al. (2018): “Modeling results.(A) Admixture events originating from 7 “Distal” populations leading 538 to the formation of the modern Indian cloud shown geographically. Clines or 2-way mixtures of 539 ancestry are shown in rectangles, and clouds (3-way mixtures) are shown in ellipses.

(…) The absence in the BMAC cluster of the Steppe_EMBA ancestry that is ubiquitous in South Asia today—along with qpAdm analyses that rule out BMAC as a substantial source of ancestry in South Asia (Fig. 3A)—suggests that while the BMAC was affected by the same demographic forces that later impacted South Asia (the southward movement of Middle to Late Bronze Age Steppe pastoralists described in the next section), it was also bypassed by members of these groups who hardly mixed with BMAC people and instead mixed with peoples further south. In fact, the data suggest that instead of the main BMAC population having a demographic impact on South Asia, there was a larger effect of gene flow in the reverse direction, as the main BMAC genetic cluster is slightly different from the preceding Turan populations in harboring ~5% of their ancestry from the AASI.

(…)between 2100-1700 BCE, we observe BMAC outliers from three sites with Steppe_EMBA ancestry in the admixed form typically carried by the later Middle to Late Bronze Age Steppe groups (Steppe_MLBA). This documents a southward movement of Steppe ancestry through this region that only began to have a major impact around the turn of the 2nd millennium BCE.

Related