Sunday, August 4, 2019

Robert N. Spengler III's "Fruit from the Sands"

Robert N. Spengler III is the director of the Paleoethnobotany Laboratories at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. He is a former Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World through New York University and a Volkswagen and Mellon Foundations Fellow.

Spengler applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Dioscoredes mentions making bread from rice flour (2000 [A.D. 64]) and Pliny the Elder is also familiar with rice, mentioning it several times in the Natural Histories (1855 [A.D. 77-79]). Archaeobotanical remains of rice from the second century A.D. (n=33 grains) were recovered from the Roman trading port of Quseir al-Qadim in Egypt and a few additional grains were recovered from excavations at the Roman trading center of Berenike. In both cases, the grains were found in very low overall abundance and interpreted as in imported good; interestingly, at both sites they remain in low abundance right through the Islamic period.

According to the Records of the Great Historian, The Shiji (1993 [91-109 B.C.], Book 123), the Han traveler, Zhang Qian, reported that rice was cultivated in the land of Dayuan. Most scholars agree that Zhang Qian was referring to Fergana of modern day Uzbekistan. Among other aspects of the local culture, the military ambassador recorded the main grains of a new region when he visited it, taking special care to observe whether rice was cultivated. He also noted that wheat fields and grape vineyards were abundant in Fergana. In book 123 of The Shiji, it is recorded that Zhang Qian claims that rice was being grown in Parthia and Chaldea. Although, many scholars have pointed out that these latter accounts are from word-of-mouth and not firsthand observations. It is not clear how reliable any of these accounts are, but the written accounts of the Great Historian take a central role in the core doctrine of early Chinese historical scholarship.

Archaeobotanical studies in Central Asia, have not recovered solid evidence for rice; although, these data are highly limited, especially for agriculturally rich regions like Fergana. There is a published claim from a 1970s Soviet excavation that a large quantity of rice grains were recovered from one site in a cluster of sites in the Nos 28, 29, and 61 group in the Ferghana valley of Uzbekistan, dating to the early first millennium A.D., but this claim has not been properly verified. Although, the claim may be supported by a second report from the 1980s of rice grains recovered from mudbrick fragments at the fifth to seventh century A.D. site of Munchak Tepe in the Osh Region of Kyrgystan near the town of Kerkidon. Today, rice is grown in parts of the Zerafshan valley in Uzbekistan and in some particularly humid river valleys as far north as southern Semirech’ye, but it is unlikely that rice was grown in most of this area in the past.
You have heard the phrase “as American as apple pie,” you know the Big Apple and who Johnnie Apple Seed was, and you are probably aware of the cultural significance of cider in southern England. However, it may shock you to learn that the apple originated in the southern corner of Kazakhstan, in the Tian Shan Mountains and that it was domesticated as it moved along the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road. In this book, I lay out the stories behind many of the grains, fruits, nuts, and spices in your kitchens today, summarizing significant discoveries in archaeobotany. I attempt to take the reader along a culinary journey from the ancient dynastic capital at Xian in central China, along the mountain foothills of the Pamir and through the Kyzyl Kum and Kara Kum deserts. I explore the lasting legacy of these ancient trade routes, and I step even further back in time to prehistoric cultural dispersals. I look at the East Asian origins of peaches and apricots and how they ended up in ancient Rome, and how grapes and the technology of wine productions spread across Eurasia.

Page 99 of the book opens halfway through the story of rice, looking at some of the early historical accounts of its spread out of East Asia and towards Europe. Rice is an integral component of the culinary traditions across West Asia today; it is hard to imagine Turkic food without pilaf or a plate of rice fried in animal fat. On page 99, I pull out some early references from Classical European texts that mention rice over two millennia ago. However, rice originated in what is now eastern China. The story of how rice crossed two continents by this time is still largely shrouded in history, but discoveries and more archaeobotanical research in Central Asia are clarifying aspects of the story. Despite the knowledge of rice in ancient Europe, this crop does not appear to have become prominent outside East Asia until the later medieval period. Advances in irrigation technology and greater public works projects were likely required to make this water-demanding crop suitable for the arid regions of West Asia. Ultimately, page 99 is not representative of the book at large, but it does provide an excellent excerpt from a case study that feeds into the bigger narrative presented in the book.
Visit Robert N. Spengler III's website and learn more about Fruit from the Sands at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue