Pastoral subsistence and mounted fighting in the Eastern Tianshan Mountain region: New insights from the Shirenzigou worked bone assemblage

PLoS One. 2021 Dec 14;16(12):e0259985. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0259985. eCollection 2021.


Situated at a geographic crossroads, the eastern Tianshan Mountain region in northwest China is crucial to understanding various economic, social, and cultural developments on the Eurasian Steppes. One promising way to gain a better knowledge of ancient subsistence economy, craft production, and social change in the eastern Tianshan Mountain region is to study the artifact assemblages from archaeological contexts. Here, we present an analysis of 488 worked animal bones from the large site of Shirenzigou (ca. 1300-1 BCE), to date the largest assemblage of this kind uncovered in the eastern Tianshan Mountain region. We classified these worked bones into six categories, including “ritual objects”, “ornaments”, “tools”, “worked astragali”, “warfare and mobility”, and “indeterminate”. The identification of animal species and skeletal elements indicates that worked bones from Shirenzigou are characterized by a predominance of caprine products, particularly worked astragali, which is consistent with the large proportion of caprine fragments found in animal remains associated with food consumption. This demonstrates the contribution of caprine pastoralism to bone working activities at Shirenzigou. The making of most worked bones does not appear to have required advanced or specialized skills. Considering the absence of dedicated bone working space, alongside the variability in raw material selection and in dimensions of certain types of artifacts, we infer that worked bone production at Shirenzigou was not standardized. In terms of raw material selection and mode of production, Shirenzigou differed from their settled, farming counterparts in the Yellow River valley of northern China. In addition, along with the evidence for violence and horseback riding, the increasing use of bone artifacts associated with warfare and mobility during the late occupation phase of Shirenzigou reflects growing social instability and implies the likely emergence of single mounted horsemen, equipped with light armors, in the region during the late first millennium BCE. Our results provide new insights into animal resource exploitation and changing lifeways of early pastoral societies in the eastern Tianshan Mountain region, expanding our knowledge of the economic, social, and political milieu of late Bronze Age and early Iron Age eastern Eurasia.

PMID:34905540 | DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0259985

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