A hydromorphic reevaluation of the forgotten river civilizations of Central Asia

Our paper challenges the long-held view that the fall of Central Asia’s river civilizations was determined by warfare and the destruction of irrigation infrastructure during the Mongol invasion. An integration of radiometric dating of long-term river dynamics in the region with irrigation canal abandonment shows that periods of cultural decline correlate with drier conditions during multicentennial length periods when the North Atlantic Oscillation had mostly positive index values. There is no evidence that large-scale destruction of irrigation systems occurred during the Arab or Mongol invasion specifically. A more nuanced interpretation identifies chronic environmental challenges to floodwater farming over the last two millennia, punctuated by multicentennial-length periods with favorable hydromorphic and hydroclimatological conditions that enabled irrigation agriculturists to flourish.

The Aral Sea basin in Central Asia and its major rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, were the center of advanced river civilizations, and a principal hub of the Silk Roads over a period of more than 2,000 y. The region’s decline has been traditionally attributed to the devastating Mongol invasion of the early-13th century CE. However, the role of changing hydroclimatic conditions on the development of these culturally influential potamic societies has not been the subject of modern geoarchaeological investigations. In this paper we report the findings of an interdisciplinary investigation of archaeological sites and associated irrigation canals of the Otrār oasis, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site located at the confluence of the Syr Darya and Arys rivers in southern Kazakhstan. This includes radiometric dating of irrigation canal abandonment and an investigation of Arys river channel dynamics. Major phases of fluvial aggradation, between the seventh and early ninth century CE and between 1350 and 1550 CE coincide with economic flourishing of the oasis, facilitated by wet climatic conditions and higher river flows that favored floodwater farming. Periods of abandonment of the irrigation network and cultural decline primarily correlate with fluvial entrenchment during periods of drought, instead of being related to destructive invasions. Therefore, it seems the great rivers of Central Asia were not just static “stage sets” for some of the turning points of world history, but in many instances, inadvertently or directly shaped the final outcomes and legacies of imperial ambitions in the region.


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