(Credit: George Kroeker/Unsplash)
Using satellite imaging and drone reconnaissance, archaeologists have discovered an ancient irrigation system that once allowed a farming community in arid northwestern China—one of the world’s driest desert climates—to raise livestock and cultivate crops.
Lost for centuries in the barren foothills of China’s Tian Shan Mountains, the ancient farming community is hidden in plain sight—appearing to be little more than an odd scattering of round boulders and sandy ruts when viewed from the ground.
Surveyed from 30 meters above using drones and specialized image analysis software, however, the site shows the unmistakable outlines of check dams, irrigation canals, and cisterns feeding a patchwork of small farm fields.
Aerial view of an ancient irrigation system discovered in the foothills of Xinjiang, China. (Credit: Archaeological Research in Asia)
Initial test excavations also confirm the locations of scattered farmhouses and grave sites, says Yuqi Li, a doctoral student in the anthropology department at Washington University in St. Louis.
Preliminary analysis, as detailed by Li and coauthors in Archaeological Research in Asia, suggests that the irrigation system was built in the 3rd or 4th century CE by local herding communities looking to add more crop cultivation to their mix of food and livestock production.
“As research on ancient crop exchanges along the Silk Road matures, archaeologists should investigate not only the crops themselves, but also the suite of technologies, such as irrigation, that would have enabled ‘agropastoralists’ to diversify their economies,” Li says.