Journal of Geographical Sciences ›› 2017, Vol. 27 ›› Issue (6): 752-768.doi: 10.1007/s11442-017-1404-6

• Orginal Article • Previous Articles    

Holocene environmental changes around Xiaohe Cemetery and its effects on human occupation, Xinjiang, China

Yifei ZHANG1,*(), Duowen MO1(), Ke HU2, Wenbo BAO3, Wenying LI4, Abuduresule Idilisi4, J. STOROZUM Michael5, R. KIDDER Tristram5   

  1. 1. Laboratory for Earth Surface Process, Ministry of Education, College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China
    2. Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, Xi’an 710054, China
    3. College of Archaeology and Museology, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China
    4. Xinjiang Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute, Urumqi 830000, China
    5. School of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis, C.B. 1114, St. Louis, MO 63130, USA
  • Received:2016-09-14 Accepted:2016-11-25 Online:2017-06-10 Published:2017-06-10
  • Contact: Yifei ZHANG;
  • About author:

    Author: Zhang Yifei (1988-), PhD Candidate, specialized in geomorphology and environmental change. E-mail:

    *Corresponding author: Mo Duowen (1955-), Professor, E-mail:

  • Supported by:
    Major Program of National Social Science Foundation of China, No.11&ZD183;National Key Project of Scientific and Technical Supporting Program of China, No.2013BAK08B02;National Natural Science Foundation of China, No.41171006


The Xiaohe Cemetery archaeological site (Cal. 4-3.5 ka BP) is one of the most important Bronze Age sites in Xinjiang, China. Although the surrounding environment is an extremely arid desert now, abundant archaeological remains indicate that human occupation was common during certain periods in the Holocene. Field investigations and laboratory analyses of a sediment profile near the Xiaohe Cemetery indicate that while the regional environment was arid desert throughout the Holocene there were three episodes of lake formation near the site in the periods 4.8-3.5 ka BP, 2.6-2.1 ka BP and 1.2-0.9 ka BP. Geomorphic and hydrological investigations reveal that a lake or lakes formed in a low-lying area when water was derived initially from the Kongque River and then shunted into the Xiaohe River basin. Low amounts of active chemical elements in lacustrine sediment between 4.8-3.5 ka BP indicate abundant and continuous water volume in the lake; the content of active chemical elements increased between 2.6-2.1 ka BP but was still at a relatively low level, suggesting a declining amount of water and diminished inflow. Between 1.2-0.9 ka BP there was a very high content of active elements, suggesting decreased water volume and indicating that the lake was stagnate. In contrast, the general climate condition shows that there had a warm-humid stage at 8-6 ka BP, a cool-humid stage at 6-2.9 ka BP and a warm-dry stage at 2.9-0.9 ka BP in this region. The hydrological evolutions around Xiaohe Cemetery did not have one-to-one correspondence with climate changes. Regional comparison indicates that broad-scale climatic conditions played an important role through its influences on the water volume of the Tarim River and Kongque River. But, the formation of the lakes and their level were controlled by geomorphic conditions that influenced how much water volume could be shunted to Xiaohe River from Kongque River. Human occupation of the Xiaohe Cemetery and nearby regions during the Bronze Age and Han-Jin period (202 BC-420 AD) corresponded to the two earlier lake periods, while no human activities existed in the third lake period because of the decreased water volume.

Key words: human-environment interaction, Xiaohe Cemetery, Holocene, environmental change, sedimentary sequence