Complex Pathways Towards Emergent Pastoral Settlements: New Research on the Bronze Age Xindian Culture of Northwest China

Yitzchak Jaffe, Anke Hein, Andrew Womack, Katherine Brunson, Jade d’Alpoim Guedes, Rongzhen Guo, Jing Zhou, Jada Ko, Xiaohong Wu, Hui Wang, Shuicheng Li, Rowan Flad

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Xindian culture of northwest China has been seen as a prototypical example of a transition toward pastoralism, resulting in part from environmental changes that started around 4000 years ago. To date, there has been little available residential data to document how and whether subsistence strategies and community organization in northwest China changed following or in association with documented environmental changes. The Tao River Archaeology Project is a collaborative effort aimed at gathering robust archaeological information to solidify our baseline understanding of economic, technological, and social practices in the third through early first millennia BC. Here we present data from two Xindian culture residential sites, and propose that rather than a total transition to nomadic pastoralism—as it is often reconstructed—the Xindian culture reflects a prolonged period of complex transition in cultural traditions and subsistence practices. In fact, communities maintained elements of earlier cultivation and animal-foddering systems, selectively incorporating new plants and animals into their repertoire. These locally-specific strategies were employed to negotiate ever-changing environmental and social conditions in the region of developing ‘proto-Silk Road’ interregional interactions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)595-647
Number of pages53
JournalJournal of World Prehistory
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The survey and excavation work reported in this paper was supported by research permits granted by the Gansu Provincial Bureau of Culture and the National Bureau of Cultural Heritage of China, and research support by the American School of Prehistoric Research, Harvard University Asia Center, and the Gansu Provincial Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Relics. Katherine Brunson would like to acknowledge the support of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University and the Center for Scientific Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. We wish to thank three anonymous reviewers from the Journal of World Prehistory for their helpful comments as well as editorial feedback and support from Tim Taylor and Michael Frachetti. We also appreciate the local support in Lintao County from administrators and local residents who enabled the fieldwork reported here.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Author(s).


  • Agro-Pastoralism
  • Bronze Age
  • Northwest China
  • Paleoclimate
  • Xindian culture

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology


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