A new theory on the origins of the Silk Road

Illustration of hills in Asia as silk roads
An aggregate "flow accumulation" model finds that nearly 75 percent of ancient Silk Road sites in the Inner Asian highlands fall along pathways (shown in red) that ancient Central Asian nomads likely used to move herds to prime summer pastures. Illustration by M.Frachetti/ T. Bukowski.

The Silk Road has long held intrigue for modern historians and archaeologists who wish to understand the origins of the world’s most complex ancient overland trade system. New research from Washington University suggests that long before the vast east-west trade routes were traversed by Marco Polo, their foundations were being carved by nomads moving herds between mountain pastures. Michael Frachetti, an associate professor of anthropology at WashU did a study combining satellites, human geography, archaeology and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) show that 75 percent of ancient Silk Road sites in the highlands of Inner Asia fall along paths optimal for moving herds to and from prime grazing areas. The study suggests a number of alternate routes to Silk Road sites, including an unexplored corridor into the Tibetan Plateau to the south of Dunhuang, China. Frachetti, who directs the Spatial Analysis, Interpretation, and Exploration (SAIE) laboratory at Washington University, has studied nomadic herding cultures and their ancient trade networks around the world. He has led excavations at sites in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries.

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