Water supply and ancient society in the Lake Balkhash Basin: Runoff variability along the historical silk road

Irina P. Panyushkina*, Mark G. Macklin, Willem H.J. Toonen, David M. Meko

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book / Report / Conference proceedingChapterAcademicpeer-review


Expansion of agricultural practices from the Fertile Crescent to China during the mid and late Holocene are believed to have shaped the early network of Silk Road routes and possibly regulated the dynamics of trade and exchange in the urban oases along the Silk Road throughout its existence. While the impacts of climate change on the Silk Road are more or less documented for the medieval period, they remain poorly understood for early history of the Silk Road, especially in Central Asia.We analyze hydroclimatic proxies derived from fluvial stratigraphy, geochronology, and tree-ring records that acted on various time scales in the Lake Balkhash Basin to learn how changes in water supply could have influenced the early farmers in the Semirechye region of southern Kazakhstan. Our approach aims to identify short-term and long-term variability of regional runoff and to compare the hydrological data with cultural dynamics coupled with the archaeological settlement pattern and agricultural production. The reconstructed runoff variability underscore the contribution of winter precipitation driven by the interaction between the Arctic oscillation and the Siberian High-Pressure System, to Central Asian river discharge. We show that Saka people of the Iron Age employed extensive ravine agriculture on the alluvial fans of the Tian Shan piedmont, where floodwater farming peaked between 400 BC and 200 BC. The early Silk Road farmers on the alluvial fans favored periods of reduced flood flows, river stability and glacier retreat in the Tian Shan Mountains. Moreover, they were able to apply simple flow control structures to lead water across the fan surface. It is very unlikely that changes in water supply ever significantly constricted agricultural expansion in this region.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSocio-Environmental Dynamics Along the Historical Silk Road
PublisherSpringer International Publishing AG
Number of pages32
ISBN (Electronic)9783030007287
ISBN (Print)9783030007270
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Central asia
  • Dendrochronology
  • Fluvial geomorphology
  • Ili river
  • Siberian high
  • Silk road archaeology Saka agriculture
  • Water resources


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