- Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat by Robert N. Spengler III
Fruits from the Sands is an elegantly written and important book. It launches its account from the most pressing issue of life on earth today—how do we feed nine billion plus people without destroying the very ecosystems upon which we rely to provide that food? How have several millennia of food globalization led to a highly interconnected over dependence on global monocultures? Those questions take us directly to an epicentre of ancient food globalization in Central Asia, where the author has over several years made a significant contribution to primary research. That first-hand experience of research in the area allows his pen to bring the region to life, not as an exotic other, but as a thriving and productive heart of the continent. This wonderful combination of first-hand scientific knowledge, a diverse and eclectic awareness of textual sources, and an engaging writing style is reminiscent of Oliver Rackham (2006). Just as Rackham's books are taken off the shelves and dipped into for a long long time, I anticipate the same will be true of Fruits from the Sands. There is a wealth of timeless insight within, supported by a generous section of endnotes and references.
Robert Spengler is a leading archaeobotanist of Central Asia, conducting primary research on physical fragments of ancient food plants recovered from archaeological excavations. The focus of much archaeobotanical research around the world has been upon the beginnings of agriculture, around one or another of the "centres of origin" first identified around a century ago by the pioneer crop geneticist Nikolai Vavilov (1926). Spengler's own focus, and the theme of this book, relates to a subsequent episode when crops moved between the Old World centres of origin some millennia after their original domestication, it is presumed through processes of migration, exchange, and trade. This led to a state of "food globalization" in which economic plants initially from the west and the east, the north and the south, were brought together within the same agricultural and culinary systems, a pattern that was widely in place by the end of prehistory. Economic species originally from China were to be found in Europe and from Southwest Asia in China. Asian crops reached sub-Saharan Africa and crops from each of these geographic regions arrived to enrich South Asian food-ways in the Indus Valley.
Both the title and the cover image draw attention to one potential agent—the exotic journeys of merchant caravans across the arid Asian sands in pursuit of Silk Road trade. The text within reveals a richer, older story underpinning that transcontinental contact. Up in the foothills of the Tianshan mountains, in the very heart of Asia, Spengler has been working with archaeologist Michael Frachetti on early sites from a time when life existed in an environment very different from that of the arid sands shown in the foreground of this book's cover image. High mountain streams kept the foothills grassy and animals could [End Page 213] graze. There, herders could plant small plots with hardy grain. At sites like Begash in Kazakhstan, these small-scale herders were exchanging seedcorn with their neighbours, so they were able to consume crops from both east and west Eurasia. What is more, this was taking place a full two thousand years before a series of merchants and armies were accompanied by the creators and narrators of a more prominent and familiar history. All this puts Spengler in an excellent position to review and interrogate the familiar traditional story of Silk Road trade and look back in time through his keen archaeobotanical eye to that history's long prelude. He brings his own expertise and an engaging writing style to the task.
Part One offers insight into the region whose history and archaeobotany the author knows...