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The origins of sheep and goats domestication in Western China

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Situated at the two sides of Eurasia, Western Asia and China are both important centres for the origins of agriculture and civilization. Key suites of domestic crops, animals, and technologies were independently developed at these two centres. Scholars have been interested in seeing whether there was communication between these ‘nuclear centres’ in prehistory, and how they were influenced by each other. The domestication of sheep and goats, which first occurred about 10,000 before present (BP) in the region of modern-day Syria, Turkey, and Iran, has long been assumed as not originated independently in China, but was introduced from the West, behind which there were population movements and cultural exchanges. However, this hypothesis has not yet been systematically studied. This is because in Western China there is such a complex distribution of wild Caprinae and Gazella species, which all have similar skeletal morphology to domestic sheep (Ovis aries) and goats (Capra hircus), and are difficult to separate from each other based on fragmentary and eroded archaeological remains. This project carries out a detailed and systematic osteomorphology and osteomety study of the Caprinae and gazelle in Western China and different Ovis species in Eurasia by examining large quantity of the modern specimens. Systematic differences in correlating elements between these species were found to be related to the ecology of the animals. These criteria are applied to the archaeological specimens from five sites in Western China from Epipaleolithic era (ca. 10,000 BP) to the Bronze Age (3500 BP) to trace the domestication and migration process of sheep and goats. Together with other zooarchaeological methods, it was discovered that the origins of sheep and goats domestication in Western China were not simply a spreading event, but have incorporated both the local wild Caprinae and domestic ones from the West. It represented a complex continuum of interactions between the animals and humans with various cultural interactions from both the East and West in the unique ecological and social contexts.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Humanities and Social Sciences Group series.

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