These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road

These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road

Jennifer Conerly - February 3, 2018

The Silk Road is the modern term for a series of interconnected trade routes that facilitated the exchange of goods and ideas in the ancient world. Getting its name from the extremely lucrative trade in Chinese silk that began in the second century BCE, the Silk Road was almost six thousand miles long, connecting Europe to Asia through a series of land and sea routes. As trade prospered, many cities grew into Great Oasis locations, trading sites that also became essential centers for culture and learning.

The Han dynasty of China connected the isolated routes between China and central Asia, creating a centralized trading highway linked to Europe through sea trade. Recent discoveries have rejected the theory that the Silk Road began the movement of ideas, goods, and culture. In some cases, the exchange was already happening for thousands of years. Other discoveries have confirmed what we know about the Silk Road. As a result, archaeologists and historians are redefining the global impact and reach of these trading networks of the ancient world.

These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road
A watchtower that dates back to the Han dynasty, built around the 2nd century BCE, located in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China. The Han opened up the trade routes between central Asia and China, but recent excavations along the Heihe River have unearthed evidence of the exchange of technology between central Asia and China almost 2,000 years before the opening of the Silk Road. Wikipedia.

Western and Central Asian Technologies Reached China 2,000 Years Before the Opening of the Silk Road

Scholars agree that the spread of ideas and information along the Silk Road contributed to the development of cultures. However, a recent discovery along the Heihe River in China shows that there was already a thriving, sophisticated culture living along the Silk Road 2,000 years before its creation. In 2010, a massive excavation in the Gansu Province discovered that 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, the inhabitants of the area on the Heihe River smelted copper and were agriculturalists.

During the excavation, archaeologists found copper coins and utensils and the earliest recovered copper mill to date, proving that the Heihe River civilization was creating alloys of metals and trading metal materials. The archaeologists also found wheat, barley, and stone tools for crop cultivation, as well as some adobe houses at the Heihe River site. Harvesting barley and wheat and building adobe structures were technologies imported from central and western Asia, so these discoveries are proof that the movement of ideas and technology into China was in place for almost two thousand years before the opening of the Silk Road.

These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road
A terracotta soldier and his horse, ca. 3rd century BCE. The 8,000 sculptures of the Terracotta Army found in the tomb of Qin Shi Huang is one of the greatest archaeological finds from the Han dynasty. As there was no evidence of life-sized sculptures before the creation of the terracotta army, archaeologists now think that Greek art inspired it. Wikipedia.

The Greeks May Have Influenced Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army

When farmers discovered Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta army in the 1970s, it was considered the most significant archaeological find from the Han dynasty. Still, many questions arose from the discovery that baffled historians for years. Before Qin Shi Huang’s rule, there was no evidence of life-sized sculptures; previously excavated statues were smaller in size, each less than a foot tall. Such a disparity in size indicates an outside influence.

The historians and archaeologists studying the ancient terracotta army now believe that ancient Greek sculptures inspired the massive warrior sculptures, which would confirm that contact between the East and the West began much earlier than the opening of the Silk Road. The Greek influence found in China by the third century BCE isn’t surprising. Alexander the Great’s campaigns into the East in the fourth century BCE led to Hellenistic culture, one that spoke Greek and imitated Greek traditions in religion, art, and politics. When the Han dynasty opened the trade routes between central and eastern Asia, Greek artistic influences could have reached China.

The research team studying the Terracotta army takes the theory a step further, indicating that a Greek sculptor may have traveled to China to train local artists in how to make the life-sized sculptures. A separate study into the biology of remains from in the Xinjiang province from the third century BCE found mitochondrial DNA that is only found in those of European descent, proving that Europeans had settled the area at the time of Huang’s reign and intermarried with the local population. The significant change in art and the presence of European DNA both point to a connection between Europe and Asia that predated the Silk Road.

These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road
A photograph of M3, a tomb uncovered in modern-day Xinjiang that depicts carvings of mythological creatures that relate to the cardinal directions. Archaeologists assume that the carvings are related to the city’s importance as a stop along the Silk Road, but the identity of those buried in the tomb remains a mystery. Pinterest.

Carvings in a 4th Century Tomb Depict the Cardinal Directions

Modern-day Xinjiang, China, was the former location of the Buddhist Kucha kingdom. In the fourth century CE, it was a highly populated stop along the northern Silk Road that controlled trade into western China. Archaeologists have uncovered ten tombs in Kucha; seven of the ten structures were massive brick tombs. One of the graves, named “M3” by researchers, contains carvings of the mythical creatures associated with the cardinal directions: The Vermillion Bird of the South, The White Tiger of the West, The Black Turtle of the North, and the Azure Dragon of the East.

The presence of the carvings connected to direction may indicate the town’s vital connection to the Silk Road, but the cemetery in Xinjiang remains mysterious. Since grave looters robbed the site, there are no material goods or written evidence that could identify the people buried there. Even without the grave goods, the intricate construction of the tombs, such as separate burial chambers and passageways, suggests the tomb belonged to members of the upper-class. Since the grave contained many bodies buried there over the years, they may have been family tombs.

These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road
A silk sample from Samdzong 5, Upper Mustang, Nepal. The Indian dyes and Chinese silks found in Samdzong 5 indicate long-distance trade in Upper Mustang, Nepal.

Indian Dyes and Chinese Silks Reached an Isolated Area of Nepal

The Sky Caves of Nepal is a collection of about 10,000 tombs cut into the mountains of Upper Mustang, Nepal. Their high elevation, at about 15,000 feet, has left them relatively intact. In 2009, seismic activity revealed ten of these tombs once hidden from view. As historians and archaeologists began exploring the caves, they discovered defining evidence that goods from the Silk Road reached Nepal. In one of the tombs, Samdzong 5, archaeologists found textiles made of Indian dyes and Chinese silks as well as an elaborate funeral mask.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge dated the finds to the fifth century CE. They tested the textiles, and the silks and dyes were not locally produced. Silk and dyes were standard items traded on the Silk Road, and the textile proves that the people of Upper Mustang used these luxury items in the production of their own textiles. Instead of being an isolated community, archaeologists think that Upper Mustang was part of a more extensive trading network connected to the Silk Road, reaching much further south than historians thought.

These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road
Maurycy Gottlieb’s painting Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, 1878. The Ashkenazi Jews invented Yiddish, and it is still spoken in the world today. Although the common belief is that an old German dialect inspired it, recent DNA evidence has traced the Ashkenazi to an important stop on the Silk Road in Turkey, suggesting that the beginnings of Yiddish may have developed as a trade language. Wikipedia.

The Origins of Yiddish Language Began on the Silk Road

Invented by Ashkenazi Jews, Yiddish includes Hebrew, Turkish, Slavic, and Farsi influences. Most scholars and linguists agree that Yiddish descends from an old Germanic language, elements of which are still present in Yiddish today. Recent research coming from the University of Sheffield and the University of Tel Aviv have found that the origins of the dialect may have begun on the Silk Road. Using DNA evidence, the researchers have discovered the ancestral home of the Ashkenazi.

Using Geographic Population Structure, also known as GPS, scientists traced the origins of the Ashkenazi to four towns in northeastern Turkey. The Ashkenazi populated Iskenaz, Ashkuz, Eskenaz, and Ashanaz, as early as 1,500 years ago. Researchers believe the names of the towns themselves play an important role in identifying the origin of the Ashkenazi, as they may be ancient translations of the word “Ashkenaz.”

Geographically, the towns were nearby a major intersection of the Silk Road, indicating that traders from the area invented a predecessor of Yiddish to speak among themselves to control the trade. Researchers also assume that it began as a language of commerce on the Silk Road because there are over two hundred and fifty words used to indicate buying and selling, or in the exchange of commerce. Using the new information, historians have theorized that the Ashkenazi continued to use the language as they spread out from northeastern Turkey and settled various places around the Eurasian continent, picking up certain aspects of the languages in the places they settled, creating the form of Yiddish spoken today.

These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road
A 14th-century etching by L. Sabatelli depicting the Black Death in Florence as described in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Wikimedia Commons.

Gerbils from Asia Spread the Plague to Europe

When we heard the term bubonic plague, we immediately think of the Black Death that ravaged Europe in the fourteenth century. Scholars have acknowledged that the contact along the Silk Road contributed to the spread of the plague across the Eurasian continent in the fourteenth century. The prevailing theory is that the fleas on rats in populated areas caused the repeated outbreaks of plague after the Black Death. Recent evidence suggests that the later epidemics came from gerbils found in Asia.

After the Black Death made its way through Europe, several subsequent outbreaks lasted from the late fourteenth century to the nineteenth century. Previously, scientists connected them to rats living in Europe, but there was always the question of why the plague would go away and start up again. Using over 4,000 historical records, researchers from the University of Oslo traced sixty initial epidemics in port towns, such as Hamburg, London, and Barcelona, which spread to smaller areas nearby.

With warmer climate change, reproduction in small rodents and fleas increases, which was thought to spread the plague after the end of the 14th century. The researchers tracked the years of the initial outbreaks in the port towns, which were sixteen isolated incidents between the fourteenth century and the nineteenth century. Researchers couldn’t find any significant climate changes in Europe that would account for the spread of the plague. However, when they analyzed climate data in Asia, they found substantial temperature drops that would cause less flea and rodent reproduction fifteen years before the new outbreaks in Europe.

According to the study, as the rodent population decreased, fleas spread to the camels commonly used in trade along the Silk Road, and then the fleas spread to people. The plague then moved along the trade routes over a time span of fifteen years, until it emerged in Europe through contact with traders that came to European ports. This new research rejects the theory that the fleas on rats spread the plague in Europe’s major cities, explaining the reintroduction of plague in cities that had no significant rat population. It also completely changes what we thought about the spread of disease along the Silk Road.

These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road
A Caravan on the Silk Road, from the Atlas Catalan. By Cresques Abraham, mid-14th century. Wikimedia Commons.

The Silk Road Reached the Highest Mountains of Tibet

The contemporary image of the Silk Road dictates that it was a straight path over the flatlands and steppes of Asia, moving into Europe through sea travel. Mountain ranges and cliffs seem to be natural barriers against conducting trade safely and efficiently, but a second-century tomb in Ngari, Tibet dating back to the second century proved that items from the Silk Road reached mountainous regions about 15,000 feet above sea level.

Initially uncovered by Tibetan monks in 2005, an excavation of the tomb in 2012 revealed many goods from China: silk labeled with Chinese characters, a gold mask, and vessels made of bronze and ceramics. The discovery of tea leaves also baffled the researchers; the earliest evidence of tea in Tibet is from the seventh century, but the tea leaves found in the tomb are from the second century. After testing the tea leaves, the archaeologists connected its chemical composition to another example of tea found in the tomb of an emperor from the Han dynasty in China.

After further study, the scientists believe that the tea, grown in southern China, was traded throughout the country, eventually making its way to Tibet via a lost route of the Silk Road. Before this discovery, there was no evidence linking the Silk Road to the isolated parts of Tibet. The Ngari tomb proves that traders of the 2nd century moved into high-altitude areas. Other finds along mountain ranges in China dating back to 3,000 BCE also support the theory that mountains were not obstacles to ancient world trade.

These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road
A photograph of one of the letters found in a watchtower in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China. The letters detail the Sogdian culture and their influence over trade on the Silk Road. International Dunhuang Project.

The Sogdians Were the Guardians of the Silk Road

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a major discovery of fourth century Sogdian letters found in an old watchtower in Dunhuang in the northwestern Gansu Province of western China became some of the earliest examples of Sogdian writing ever recovered. Known as the masters of the Silk Road, the Sogdian language was the language of trade along the trade routes beginning in the fourth century. The Sogdians grew in influence, eventually dominating the central Asian stretch of the Silk Road between the sixth century and the tenth century.

The Sogdians were a nomadic Iranian people from modern-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Cyrus the Great conquered the lands that the Sogdians lived in on his Central Asian campaign in the mid-6th century, and they remained under the control of the Achaemenid Empire until the following century. At this time, the Sogdians engaged in long-distance trade, contributing to the spread of goods and religion along central Asian trade routes. They never officially formed their own empire, choosing instead to spread out along central Asia and maintaining their trade contacts.

In the second century BCE, the Sogdians engaged in trade with China, at the suggestion of the Chinese diplomat and explorer Zhang Qian. China sent many diplomatic missions to Sogdian lands, and the Sogdians created a monopoly on the trade between China and India by the 4th century. Their influence also spread to the West, forming a trade agreement with the Byzantine empire.

The Sogdians dominated the major trading towns of Suyab and Talas in present-day Kyrgyzstan, and they controlled the northern caravan routes along the Silk Road until the 8th century. By the 10th century, the Sogdian lands were conquered by the Uighur Empire; the Uyghurs learned the trade techniques from the Sogdians and eventually replaced them as the mediators of Silk Road trade after the 10th century.

The Dunhuang letters offer both a glimpse into everyday life of the Sogdians and demonstrate their knowledge of the trade markets. Two of the letters were written by an abandoned Sogdian wife, while two others complain of the threat of attack by the Huns along their areas of influence. In one letter, Sogdian merchants write to another merchant in Samarkand that political instability in Luoyang, a major hub of Chinese trade, greatly reduced the trade opportunities there.

These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road
At a tomb in Turpan, northwestern China, a man was found buried with well-preserved cannabis leaves serving as a shroud. Photographed by Hongen Jiang.

Merchants on the Silk Road Traded Marijuana

Some of the primary items traded along the Silk Road were silk and spices, but a discovery in the northwestern Chinese city of Turpan proves that another commodity was making its way through the trade highway. Turpan was a very popular stop along the Silk Road for travelers and traders before they made their journey west. Over 200 graves have been excavated there to learn about this city’s inhabitants and the city’s significance to the Silk Road. In 2016, evidence from the Jiayi gravesite indicated that marijuana was a precious commodity along the trade routes of the Silk Road.

In the tomb dated to about 2,500 years ago, a young man’s body was covered with thirteen well-preserved cannabis plants, covering his body from his pelvis to his face, with his head resting on reeds in the shape of a pillow. He may have been part of the Subexi people who lived in the area in the first millennium BCE. Archaeologists have never found whole leaves in a tomb, nor have they found them in the shape of a burial shroud. The plants were about three feet in length, and they covered his body diagonally from below his waist on the right to his face on the left.

The marijuana was in whole leaf form with buds still attached, which means it was probably locally harvested at the end of the summer specifically for this particular burial. Cannabis plants were highly valuable in the ancient world; their fibers were woven into cloth items, and their seeds were highly nutritious and served many medical purposes. As researchers haven’t recovered any clothing or potions using marijuana products from the graves, they believe that the people of Turpan used cannabis plants for medicinal purposes or its mind-altering qualities. Other marijuana products, such as cannabis seeds and powder, have also been recovered from other grave sites along the Silk Road, so marijuana was possibly a high-demand trade item.

These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road
The Kizil Thousand-Buddha Caves, Xinjiang, China. Photographed by Rolfmueller, October 1, 2006. Wikipedia.

Religion Also Spread Along Silk Road Trade Routes

There is much evidence that shows the spread of material culture along the Silk Road, but the trading network also contributed to the movement of ideas and religion. There are many Buddhist temples along the path of the Silk Road, including the Kizil Thousand-Buddhas cave in Xinjiang, China. The Kizil location is considered to be the earliest Buddhist temple complex, dating back to between the third and eighth century.

Buddhism spread from India into China through trade contacts between the first and second century. By the end of the second century, Buddhist monks from India traveled to major Chinese cities where they worked to translate Buddhist texts into Chinese. By the fourth century, the Chinese government sent Buddhist monks to India to study the religion more closely at its source, and they helped facilitate the spread of Buddhism throughout China.

Built by the Tocharians, an Indo-European people who lived in the oasis cities near Xinjiang, the temple complex has 236 cave temples carved into the sides of the cliff. Most of the temples were looted, but many of the wall paintings remain intact. Some of the images were removed to museums all over Europe and Asia in the twentieth century. Historians have divided the paintings into categories, based on their influences.

The earliest paintings have Greek and Indian artistic influences, while later paintings have Persian artistic influences. The latest dated paintings, closer to the seventh and eighth centuries, are the only ones that include elements of Chinese artistic techniques. The Kizil Cave Complex provides evidence of the spread of Buddhism along the routes of the Silk Road and analyzing the paintings completed over multiple centuries can also help historians and archaeologists understand the movement of cultural and artistic ideas into China via the trade routes.