Robert Spengler

Visiting Research Scholar 2016-17

Robert N Spengler III recently wrapped up his research in Berlin, Germany, as a Volkswagen and Mellon Foundations Postdoctoral Fellow jointly appointed at the German Institute of Archaeology (Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, DAI), in the Eurasia Department and Freie Universität, Berlin, during which time he also retained his affiliation with Washington University in St. Louis in the Anthropology Department where he held a post as a Research Associate the previous year. He defended his PhD at Washington University in St. Louis in March of 2013. He is also working with a research team in Jena, Germany, where he holds an affiliation through the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte).

He is studying the paleoeconomy and ecology of Central Asia from the third millennium B.C. onward and has ongoing research projects in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, China, and Mongolia. While he has used several methods in the archaeobotanical sciences, he primarily analyzes macrobotanical remains. Through this research he has shown that farming was an important part of the economy across eastern Central Asia for at least four millennia and that many important crops spread through this region in prehistory. Through his archaeobotanical studies, he is helping to fill in the last major gaps in the global map of agricultural spread, and showing how important the Silk Road was in the spread of specific crops and technologies. In addition, his data feed into a broader understanding of human adaptations, social development, and the linked nature between agricultural intensification and social complexity.

While at ISAW, Dr. Spengler will be working on a book titled “Fruits of the Sands: How the Silk Road shaped your dinner table”. The book comprehensively explores archaeobotanical data from the broad region of Central Eurasia, from Western China to the steppe and from the Altai Mountains to the Kopet Dag. Using these data, Dr. Spengler explains when and from where certain crops spread into this region and how, from there, they eventually reached the disparate ends of Eurasia. While most historians mark the beginning of the Silk Road as occurring during the second century B.C., archaeological artifacts illustrate just how wide spread the movement of material culture was in these mountain valleys as far back as the late third millennium B.C. Agricultural crops moved through these mountain valleys along with other goods and as a result shaped cuisines around the world. The book traces the story of many familiar grain crops, as well as fruits such as the apple, which originated in Central Asia. By discussing the archaeobotany of Central Asia, Dr. Spengler lays out the history of many of the foods on your dinner table today. For a more detailed discussion of his research and the book project, visit his website at