Conventional wisdom holds that the fabled Silk Road began operating around 200 BCE and continued through the late 14th century. This trade route allowed the transport of goods between China and the Mediterranean region, but it may not have been an invention of powerful empires looking to expand trade. A new analysis of human movements across Asia suggests the Silk Road may have grown out of the paths used by simple nomadic herders thousands of years earlier.
This claim is not based on archaeological evidence, but rather by a modeling of “human geography” by researchers from Washington University in St. Louis. Lead author Michael Frachetti argues that mapping the path of the Silk Road by the so-called “least cost” method won’t give you an accurate result. While there may be direct routes across lowlands from one place to another, herders and farmers would not necessarily have used such paths through arid regions. They would have used different paths through more rugged highland terrain for centuries before the Silk Road started up. Perhaps those routes were re-used by Silk Road traders.
The team used a computer model to determine whether traders on the Silk Road were likely to have appropriated the routes developed by herders. The model simulated herding mobility at elevations from 750 meters (2,461 feet) to 4,000 meters (13,123 feet). This avoids the most arid regions of central Asia where livestock would not fare well. The model accounted for seasonal conditions that would have allowed for safe travel through these regions. With 500 passes of this model, the team had a probable picture of how ancient nomads moved across the Asian highlands up to 5,000 years ago.
Importantly, this data was generated without any connection to known Silk Road archaeological sites (like the one above in Krygyztan). When those sites are overlaid on the simulated nomad routes, the team found 74.4% of highland sites were on those routes. This could mean that what came to be known as the Silk Road began organically. Nomadic herders from the Asian highlands developed a network of paths intended to move livestock, and people kept using them. It just so happens this network was ideal for transporting goods across the continent as well.
This study by no means confirms that the Silk Road is thousands of years older than we thought, but it’s possible. Finding archaeological proof for this hypothesis is difficult, as the simulated routes run through some of the most remote areas of Asia. For now, it’s something for academics to continue arguing about.