Preprints
https://doi.org/10.5194/cp-2020-102
https://doi.org/10.5194/cp-2020-102

  07 Aug 2020

07 Aug 2020

Review status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal CP.

Climate-driven desertification triggered the end of the Ancient Silk Road

Guanghui Dong1,2, Leibin Wang3, David Dian Zhang3, Fengwen Liu4, Yifu Cui5, Guoqiang Li1, Zhilin Shi1, and Fahu Chen6 Guanghui Dong et al.
  • 1Key Laboratory of Western China’s Environmental Systems (Ministry of Education), College of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Lanzhou University, Lanzhou 730000, China
  • 2CAS Center for Excellence in Tibetan Plateau Earth Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Beijing 100101, China
  • 3Centre for Climate and Environmental Changes, School of Geographical Sciences, Guangzhou University, Guangzhou 510006, China
  • 4Institute for Ecological Research and Pollution Control of Plateau Lakes, School of Ecology and Environment Science, Yunnan University, 650504, China
  • 5College of Tourism, Huaqiao University, Quanzhou 362021, China
  • 6Key Laboratory of Alpine Ecology, CAS Center for Excellence in Tibetan Plateau Earth Sciences and Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Beijing 100101, China

Abstract. The Ancient Silk Road played a crucial role in cultural exchange and commercial trade between western and eastern Eurasia during the historical period. However, the exchanges were interrupted in the early 16th century AD, in the Ming dynasty. Three causes of the demise of the ancient Silk Road have been suggested: (1) the thriving of the sea trade route after the great geographic discovery in the Ming dynasty; (2) frequent incursions by the Wala and Turpan kingdoms, or fighting in border areas; and (3) climate change. In this study, new evidence from a sedimentary site in Dunhuang oasis together with analysis of historical archives indicate that neither the sea trade route nor the frontier wars were the pivotal reason for the closure of the Jiayuguan Pass. Extreme droughts and desertification events, caused by climate change, occurred in the Dunhuang area, west of the Jiayuguan Pass, during ~ 1440–1460 AD. After ~ 1450 AD, desertification rendered the ancient Silk Road impassable in the area, which resulted in a steep fall in the volume of trade as well as political chaos and mass migrations. The final closure of the Jiayuguan Pass in 1539 AD and the abandonment of Dunhuang city further interrupted the operation of the ancient Silk Road.

Guanghui Dong et al.

 
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Guanghui Dong et al.

Guanghui Dong et al.

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Short summary
Neither the sea trade route nor the frontier wars were the pivotal reason for the closure of the Jiayuguan Pass. Extreme droughts and desertification events, caused by climate change, occurred in the Dunhuang area during ~ 1440–1460 AD. The final closure of the Jiayuguan Pass in 1539 AD and the abandonment of Dunhuang city further interrupted the operation of the ancient Silk Road.