A team of archaeologists from Washington University in St. Louis made the discovery using data from drone and satellite imagery. They found “unmistakable outlines” of irrigation canals, cisterns and check dams (smaller, more makeshift-style dams), according to a university press release. They believe it's possible that the knowledge required to build such irrigation systems originated with early communities such as these, traveling along the corridor to Xinjiang province the same way crops did.
The team analyzed satellite imagery from the university’s Spatial Analysis, Interpretation and Exploration laboratory and studied a region called MGK—named for the nearby Mohuchahan Valley, according to the university press release. They then mapped the site in greater detail using a consumer-grade quadrocopter drone, as well as cutting-edge photogrammetry software that created a comprehensive 3D model of the site by stitching together roughly 2,000 geotagged aerial photos, according to the press release. A paper describing the research was published in the journal Archaeological Research in Asia.
Early irrigation and agropastoralism at Mohuchahangoukou (MGK), Xinjiang, China
Yuqi Li. Michael J.Storozum, Xin Wang, Wu Guo
In Xinjiang, irrigation technology was fundamental to the mixed economy of local agropastoralists who were likely responsible for transmitting domesticated plants across Eurasia. However, a dearth of archaeological sites has long hindered archaeologists' efforts to understand the development of irrigation in Xinjiang. In this article, we present the results from our investigation of an archaeological site called Mohuchahangoukou (MGK), a recently discovered site in central Xinjiang with an irrigation system. We used drone-based photogrammetric surveys, pedestrian surveys, and test excavations to create a high-resolution map of a portion of this archaeological site to explore the architectural remains. In addition to identifying many houses and burials, we discovered a complicated irrigation system that consists of stone-constructed canals, check dams, cisterns, and fields. Our material analysis and radiocarbon dates place the construction of this irrigation system to the 3rd and 4th century CE. By comparing the irrigation system at MGK with other early irrigation systems found in Xinjiang, western Central Asia, and the Near East, we propose that the early irrigation technology that sustained the agropastoralist economy has probable roots in western Central Asia. The mechanism behind this technology transfer most likely was through networked interactions between agropastoralist communities that lived along the nearly continuous mountain chain extending from southern Central Asia to western China. Our discovery and analysis of MGK opens up new possibilities to examine the role irrigation played in developing agropastoralism in Central Asia and driving early trade and exchanges between western and eastern Eurasia.
Keywords: Irrigation, Ancient agriculture, Agropastoralism, UAV-based aerial survey, Photogrammetry, Technology transfer