Fruit from the Sands

book review by dr Jennifer Bates

There is a history to the plant foods we eat. According to the FAO, by 2050 we will need to feed two billion more people, and as such there is an increased urgency to explore the kinds of diets needed to fill this growing need. At the same time our planet is changing: resources are becoming scarcer, the climate is changing, and the world is urbanising faster than ever before. One source of inspiration for future diets is to look to the past; archaeologists are increasingly called upon to provide information both on the diversity of past diets and on how we reached this point in our current dietary and agricultural trends. The stories of our food origins often begin with discussions of the origins of agriculture around 10,000 years ago where interactions with cereals such as wheat and barley resulted in gradual changes to plant genetics and morphology and to human behaviour. This resulted in a new relationship with our floral landscape that would eventually become agriculture as we think of it today. This relationship also included new interactions with other crops such as peas, lentils, chickpeas, flax, and with animals like goats, sheep and cows. It occurred not only once but many times in numerous places across the world. While the origins of our plant (and animal) foods are undoubtedly important, how our culinary palettes diversified, how plant foods were moved around and changed the way we think about food and agriculture is also a critical part of understanding how we reached our current food crises. Robert Spengler’s new book, Fruit from the Sands (2019, University of California Press), is thus timely as it seeks to explore not simply the origins of the ‘founder’ Old World cereals of wheat, barley and rice, but the ways in which they and other less commonly discussed plants have travelled from their places of origin to end up across the globe on our tables today.

Spengler is an archaeobotanist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. Currently the director of the Paleoethnobotany Laboratories, Spengler’s research has focused on the paleoeconomy and ecology of Central Asia from the third millennium BCE onward. Using an archaeobotanical approach, with a primary interest in macrobotanical remains (those plant remains you can see with the naked eye but may still need a microscope to do the fine identifications), he has carried out numerous projects in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, China and Mongolia. The goal of Spengler’s work has been to show that farming was important to the economies of people in eastern Central Asia for at least the last four millennia despite an archaeological and historical focus on pastoralism, and to explore the crops that spread throughout this region, their domestication pathways and who, how and why they were moved.

Fruit from the Sands represents the culmination of this research to date, and a summation of a vast quantity of primary and secondary data. Spengler begins the book by outlining the overall goals of the volume. The book is set against the modern backdrop of food deficiency, ecosystem destruction, globalisation and industrialisation. Issues of monocropping and lack of food diversity are contrasted against the richness of the foods that Spengler has noted in literary and archaeological data found across Central Asia from the third millennium BCE onwards, and he questions why there has been a lack of research into this area given the issues we have today with regards to food scarcity and declining genetic diversity in many of our basic food items, several of which originate in this region.

In the search for answers as to how humanity reached this point, Spengler takes us to the Silk Road and Central Asia. He outlines how, far from the empty wasteland that many people may expect it to be, it is in fact a vast and dynamic range of environments, with mountains, valleys, steppes, rivers, deserts, and above all a complex and rich cultural history. To begin with, Spengler breaks down the term Silk Road; questioning why a singular road moving only one commodity is used to describe a ‘cultural phenomenon of exchange and interaction’ lasting millennia (p.8). He outlines how this seven-thousand-kilometre journey that has its most famous iteration connecting Xi’an to Rome is only one of multiple routes through the mountains and valleys of Central Asia, and that silk was not the main commodity. Rather a variety of goods were exchanged by traders and travellers, spices in particular are noted as a key commodity along these routes. Through a detailed historiography Spengler breaks down the later colonialist narratives that explore what moves back to Europe, and instead includes and indeed emphasises the non-Western voices describing life on the Silk Roads across the ages. This is in contrast with many other histories of the Silk Roads or of histories of peoples moving across Central Asia which have tended to focus on Western narratives such as those by Pliny, Polo or on conquerors like Alexander. Spengler’s style gives room for multiple narratives and styles of contemporary ethnographies from travellers’ tales to pilgrimage diaries to cook books that make for a refreshing read, all woven in with modern, and especially New World, relevancies. Throughout the early chapters and the wider book, we are reminded after all that this is a story of the ‘origins of the foods we eat’, with the narrative made relevant for the modern audience. A nice example of this can be seen very early on where Spengler links the role of rice in the Islamic world, apple as the symbol of the USA, peach as emblem of the state of Georgia (USA), and apricot of the nation of Georgia back to the globalisation originating on the Silk Roads (p.6).

The importance of this rich textual evidence is highlighted in the early chapters of the book because, as Spengler points out, until recently there has been little known about the movement of plants and indeed people across the Silk Roads during their earlier formations. As a fellow archaeobotanist I can empathise with this – the lack of systematic flotation (a key method for recovering archaeobotanical remains) and direct radiocarbon is problematic for many regions across the globe including my own area of study in South Asia. In Central Asia however with the vastness of the study area, this is even more apparent, and Spengler takes the time to outline the impact of this, but also the great strides he and others have taken in recent years to fill in the data needed to explore research questions about the region. Combining historical, archaeobotanical, archaeogenetic and bioarchaeological research from numerous sources, including his own extensive analyses, Spengler uses the second half of his volume to outline how different crops have been moved across this vast region to create the different foodways that we know and recognise today.

It is unsurprising to an archaeobotanist such as myself, that two of Spengler’s larger chapters are devoted to millets and rice, as these two cereal types (millets incorporating a number of species rather than being a single crop) have the most controversial and debated origins and pathways to modern use in the Old World. Millets, despite being used today as bird food or famine food in much of the Western world, were one of the key grains of the ancient world. From broomcorn millet to foxtail millet, one common feature of this crop group is their ability to grow in highly arid regions, poor soils and with a short growing season, making them key resources for future sustainability projects. The FAO has endorsed India’s proposition to observe 2023 as the International Year of Millets in order to encourage farmers and governments to grow this long overlooked crop, with sustainability and agricultural resilience in mind.

Millets in the past however were not overlooked as Spengler ably demonstrates (Chapter 4). Broomcorn and foxtail millet, domesticated in China c.6000 BCE (p.68) were key to Chinese agricultural systems, allowing for population growth, and have been linked alongside rice to the development of civilisations in the region. Outside this hearth of domestication, Spengler notes that the first evidence for broomcorn millet is at Begash in Kazakhstan c.2200 BCE (p.78), with more finds located throughout the Silk Road corridors in the millennia that followed at sites like Gonur Depe and Adji Kui (p.78), highlighting the role of the Silk Roads in the dispersal of this plant by people westwards. Spengler notes how the rise of millet was linked keenly with the environmental conditions in the region, and that it was quickly adopted as it spread, but concludes that the appearance of free-threshing wheat in Europe and rice across Asia ultimately led to it being replaced as a key crop. This is, I felt one of the minor failings of the structure of the volume – by segregating the crops into individual chapters one occasionally looses the links between the stories they told as they moved through the region. Despite this, the outline of millets first, before the more commonly considered large grained cereals like rice, wheat and barley makes a strong point: diversity in modern cropping is critical and we should look not only to genetic diversity in the big grained staples, but to the smaller, forgotten crops as well.

The larger cereals of rice, wheat and barley and the diversity of pulses are ably handled in individual chapters. Each has a complex history which Spengler outlines carefully before exploring their role in Silk Roads globalisation. Next semester I will be teaching a course on domestication, and these chapters in particular are likely to feature heavily in our discussions as they are well laid out and thoughtful in their handling of what are complex genetic and archaeological histories. By methodically working through the archaeogenetic discussions on the origins of each of these crops, Spengler frames the evidence for his own work in a way that is accessible to all readers and will be particularly useful to students looking for a comprehensive overview of the topic. He then explores the historic and archaeobotanical data for each of these cereals and the pulses in Central Asia in antiquity. For example, phytoliths of rice at Tuzusai (p.100) and limited archaeobotanical data from sites 28, 29 and 61 (p.99) in Fergana and Munchak Tepe (p.99) link (to a degree as Spengler makes clear) with the textual evidence from sources such as Zhang Qian (2nd century BCE) who reported rice being grown in the land of Dayuan (Uzbekistan) and across into Parthia and Chaldea (p.99). With each plant, Spengler not only explores the origins, movements and diversity of each crop, but the possible ways in which they might have been used, drawing these through to modern recipes and cuisines of today, making them more accessible to the reader.

The fruits though are where Spengler shows the real legacy of the Silk Roads in our modern kitchens – without these third millennium routes our modern-day cuisines would have none of the richness we take for granted today. While the notion of the cornucopia may be familiar to many a reader, the idea that we owe not only our apples to Silk Roads travellers, but also that modern wine exists thanks in part to the movement of genetic stock and the creation of new flavours along this route may come as a surprise. The Tian Shan mountain range is home to forests where c.3000 BCE, a long process of domestication began which resulted in a wild population of Malus sieversii (p.196-7), the ancestor of all our apples becoming the fruit we know today. Genetic evidence shows a complex history of hybridisation between Caucasian and European wild apples with grafting and cloning that led to the abundant regional colours, crunchiness, and flavours that we have today. Spengler is careful to highlight this richness through the inclusion of poetry and stories of the flavours, contrasting them with the almost industrialised and limited varieties available to us today, linking us back to his aim of making the reader question modern monocropping and lack of food diversity. Grapes, peaches, and other fruits and nuts are similarly explored, with their mythology, histories and archaeology woven into a complex story that stands in sharp contrast to their modern usage and diversity. Exploring fruits in depth, Spengler weaves together both ideas of foodways, traditions and archaeological stories to outline how our modern fruits have been altered by the tastes and desires of different groups along the Silk Routes over long periods of time.

No story of the Silk Roads is complete without a discussion of spices and tea. Indeed Spengler, early in the book, suggests that an alternative name for the roads is Spice Routes, and describes the routes as a ‘taste of Asia’ (p.247). The complexity of understanding both tea and spices from an archaeological perspective is underlined in this final data chapter – Spengler draws on the historical record heavily as he notes the lack of archaeobotanical data for many of the things that are listed. This final chapter is rich with flavours but leaves the reader wanting more – a bigger discussion on why these things have not been discovered could perhaps be added to this chapter. As an archaeobotanist I appreciate the reason for the paucity of physical evidence – a lack of preservation or recovery is the likely culprit, but this could be an opportunity perhaps to bring in new methodologies, to discuss the potentials of residue analysis for example that are being tested in many regions across the world on ceramics and tools to look for other similarly ephemeral food remains. It raises new questions – has there been a biomarker for tea (Camellia sinensis) discovered and if not, maybe there is a new line of research that could be posited from this incredible tome Spengler has compiled.

Fruit from the Sands is an expansive and comprehensive book which illustrates what can be achieved when multiple lines of evidence are drawn together. By exploring the role of Central Asia from the third millennium BCE onwards and how our own plates today represent a globalised past, Spengler highlights some truly important messages which readers need to pay attention to. He draws out the diversity of past diets, both in terms of species but also genetically, a critical point in a world that is experiencing one of the largest extinctions of plants and animals. We currently rely on only three grains (wheat, maize and rice) for over half of the world’s calorie intake, and the landrace base (a locally adapted traditional variety of a species that has developed over time through adaptation to its natural and cultural environment and due to isolation from other populations of the species remains distinct) for these crops is shrinking rapidly as agricultural the world over is increasingly commercialised. While Spengler does not seek to answer the question of whether such monoculture and commercialisation will ultimately destroy our food heritage, he highlights it and raises our awareness of our diverse globalised past.

Overall Fruit from the Sands is an entertaining and thought provoking historical, botanical and archaeological review of a vast swathe of the Old World. It is accessible for specialists and the general public alike, and should be read by policy makers as well, with a mind to thinking about agricultural diversity and sustainability. The one area I would say now needs to be thought about and developed is: now that Spengler has covered plants on the Silk Roads from the third millennium BCE, isn’t it time someone did the same for animals?

Jennifer Bates

Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania


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