With National Science Foundation support, Drs. Irina Panyushkina, Jeffrey Dean, and their colleagues will undertake a dendrochronological (tree-ring) analysis of wood from Iron Age archaeological sites in Central Asia focussing on the Scythian Pazyryk Culture (1,000 B.C.) in the Altai Mountains, which lies across Russia, Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan states. Crossdated tree-ring sequences from living trees, dead trees in glacial valleys, and archaeological timbers will be used to build a 3,000-year continuous master tree-ring chronology, which will provide calendar dates for Scythian, Tagar, Hun-Sarmatian, and Turkic archaeological sites. This achievement will be a quantum advance like that of the 1920s when dendrochronology precisely dated hundreds of Paleo-Indian sites in the U.S. Southwest. The Altai project is a scientific partnership between the United States and the Russian Federation to study the archaeology, dendrochronology, and paleogeography of Central Asia. The project integrates efforts of Russian, German, American, Kazakhstani, and French archaeological teams conducting multidisciplinary studies of Iron Age steppe nomads in the region.

The project will directly address (1) the absolute chronology of the Siberian Scythians and of the Iron Age in Inner Asia, (2) the place of the Pazyryk people in the general cultural and historical context of the region, (3) the extent to which climatic variability and extremes during the last few thousands years (Late Holocene) impacted nomads of the Eurasian steppe. Although diagnostic Pazyryk artifacts and decorative styles commonly are used to establish connections among the pastoral and sedentary groups of Eurasia, the insecure dating of the Pazyryk expression impedes understanding the interactions among these Iron Age societies. Application of the 3,000-year master tree-ring chronology to dating wood objects from Scythian tombs will provide an absolute chronological framework for systematizing existing archeological data and future finds. An absolute chronology for the study region will clarify ideas about Indo-European origins, the prehistory of pastoral societies before Mongol expansion into Inner Eurasia, and Scythian influence on the cultures of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean Basin. Combining the dendroclimatic records with other indicators of environmental changes will produce high resolution (seasonal and annual) environmental reconstructions for the last 3,000 years. These data will be used to assess the degree of environmental stress on the pastoral steppe nomads whose animal herds, a vital component of their economy and social organization, where highly vulnerable to fluctuations in climate and vegetation. This, in turn will indicate the degree to which climatic variability "forced" the sequent waves of Scythian impact on the agrarian cultures to the west.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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University of Arizona
United States
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