The Gushi Kingdom - Archaeology of the Subeixi Culture in Turpan

The Gushi Kingdom - Archaeology of the Subeixi Culture in Turpan

The people of the Gushi Kingdom, referred to in the archaeological literature as the Subeixi culture, were the first permanent residents of the arid land-locked region called the Turpan basin of Xinjiang Province of western China, beginning about 3,000 years ago. The Turpan basin suffers from extreme temperatures, ranging between -27 and +32 degrees Celsius (-16 to 89 degrees Fahrenheit; within it lies the Turpan oasis, created and maintained by a massive qanat system, built long after the Subeixi had been conquered.

Eventually, over the span of 1,000 years or so, the Subeixi developed into an agro-pastoral society, with wide-ranging contacts across Asia; this later Subeixi is believed to represent the Cheshi (Chü-shih) state reported in historical Chinese records as having battled and lost against the Western Han.

Who Were the Subeixi?

The Subeixi were one of several Bronze Age Eurasian steppe societies who roamed the vast central steppes and built and maintained the trade network known as the Silk Road.

Subeixi weaponry, horse euipment and garments are said to be similar to those of the Pazyryk culture, suggesting contacts between Subeixi and Scythians of the Altai mountains in Turkey. Astoundingly well-preserved human remains found in Subeixi culture tombs show that the people had fair hair and caucasian physical characteristics, and recent research maintains that there were historical and linguistic ties to the ancient Scythians or Rouzhi people.

The Subeixi inhabited the Turpan basin between ca 1250 BC and 100 AD when they were conquered by the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC-9 AD) who were eager to expand their control over the Silk Road trade system.

Crops and Houses of the Gushi Kingdom

The earliest Subeixi settlers were pastoralist nomads, who herded sheep, goats, cattle and horses. Beginning about 850 BC, the nomads began to grow domesticated cereals like bread wheat (Triticum aestivum), broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum) and naked barley (Hordeum vulgare var. coeleste).

Two small settlement sites have been identified within the Turpan basin at Subeixi and Yuergou, which have not been extensively published in English as of yet. Three houses were found at Subiexi, and excavated in the 1980s. Each house contained three rooms; House 1 was the best preserved. It was rectangular, measuring 13.6x8.1 meters (44.6x26.6 feet). In the western room, an oblong trough near the west wall may have functioned as an animal byre. The middle room contained a hearth on the east side. The eastern room was dedicated to a pottery workshop, with a kiln, two rectangular shallow tanks, and three large pits. Artifacts recovered from this house included pottery and stone tools, including 23 grindstones and 15 pestles. Radiocarbon dates on the site returned calibrated dates between 2220-2420 cal BP, or about 500-300 BC.

Yuergou was discovered in 2008. It included five stone houses with roughly circular rooms, and several free-standing walls, all made of enormous boulders. The largest of the houses at Yuergou had four rooms, and organic materials within the site were carbon dated and ranged in age between 200-760 cal BC.

The later, farming Subeixi grew cannabis, used both for its fiber and for its psychoactive properties. A cache of caper seeds (Capparis spinosa) mixed with cannabis was recovered from what scholars have interpreted as a shaman's tomb at Yanghai, who died about 2700 BP. Other probable Subeixi medicines include Artemisia annua, found in a package within a tomb at Shengjindian. Artemeinini is an effective therapy for many different diseases including malaria. It has a fragrant scent, and Jiang et al feel it was likely placed in the tomb to eliminate the odors that accompany death rituals.

Wild plants collected from Subeixi tombs include a range of materials used for fiber, oil and construction materials, including reed stems Phragmites australis and bulrush leaf fibers (Typha spp). Mat making, weaving, metal smelting, and woodworking were developed handicrafts by the later period.


The early Subiexi were nomadic, and what is most known about this period comes from large cemeteries. Preservation in these tombs is excellent, with human remains, organic objects and plant and animal remains recovered from thousands of tombs in cemeteries at Aidinghu, Yanghai, Alagou, Yuergou, Shengjindian, Sangeqiao, Wulabu, and Subeixi cemeteries, among others.

Among the evidence found in the Shengjindian tombs (about 35 km east of modern Turfan in contexts dated to 2200-2000 years ago) was also Vitis vinifera, in the form of mature grape seeds which indicate that the people had access to ripe grapes, and were thus likely cultivated locally. A grape vine was also recovered at Yanghai tombs, dated to 2,300 years ago.

Wooden Prosthesis

Also discovered at Shengjindian was a wooden leg on a 50-65-year-old man. Investigations show that he lost the use of the leg as a result of tuberculosis infection, which caused osseous ankylosis of his knee which would have made walking impossible. The knee was supported with an externally fitted wooden prosthesis, which consisted of a thigh stabilizer and leather straps, and a peg at the bottom made of horse/ass hoof. Wear and tear on the prosthesis and lack of muscle atrophy in that leg suggest the man wore the prosthesis for some years.

The most probable age of the burial is 300-200 BC, making it the oldest functional leg prosthesis to date. A wooden toe was found in an Egyptian tomb dated to 950-710 BC; a wooden foot was reported by Herodotus in the 5th century BC; and the oldest case of a prosthetic leg use is from Capua Italy, dated to about 300 BC.

Chen T, Yao S, Merlin M, Mai H, Qiu Z, Hu Y, Wang B, Wang C, and Jiang H. 2014. Identification of Cannabis Fiber from the Astana Cemeteries, Xinjiang, China, with Reference to Its Unique Decorative Utilization. Economic Botany 68(1):59-66. doi: 10.1007/s12231-014-9261-z

Gong Y, Yang Y, Ferguson DK, Tao D, Li W, Wang C, Lü E, and Jiang H. 2011. Investigation of ancient noodles, cakes, and millet at the Subeixi Site, Xinjiang, China. Journal of Archaeological Science 38(2):470-479. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2010.10.006

Jiang H-E, Li X, Ferguson DK, Wang Y-F, Liu C-J, and Li C-S. 2007. The discovery of Capparis spinosa L. (Capparidaceae) in the Yanghai Tombs (2800 years b.p.), NW China, and its medicinal implications. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 113(3):409-420. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2007.06.020

Jiang H-E, Li X, Liu C-J, Wang Y-F, and Li C-S. 2007. Fruits of Lithospermum officinale L. (Boraginaceae) used as an early plant decoration (2500 years BP) in Xinjiang, China. Journal of Archaeological Science 34(2):167-170. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2006.04.003

Jiang H-E, Li X, Zhao Y-X, Ferguson DK, Hueber F, Bera S, Wang Y-F, Zhao L-C, Liu C-J, and Li C-S. 2006. A new insight into Cannabis sativa (Cannabaceae) utilization from 2500-year-old Yanghai Tombs, Xinjiang, China. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 108(3):414-422. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2006.05.034

Jiang H-E, Wu Y, Wang H, Ferguson DK, and Li C-S. 2013. Ancient plant use at the site of Yuergou, Xinjiang, China: implications from desiccated and charred plant remains. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 22(2):129-140. doi: 10.1007/s00334-012-0365-z

Jiang H-E, Zhang Y, Lü E, and Wang C. 2015. Archaeobotanical evidence of plant utilization in the ancient Turpan of Xinjiang, China: a case study at the Shengjindian cemetery. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 24(1):165-177. doi: 10.1007/s00334-014-0495-6

Jiang H-E, Zhang Y-B, Li X, Yao Y-F, Ferguson DK, Lü E-G, and Li C-S. 2009. Evidence for early viticulture in China: proof of a grapevine (Vitis vinifera L., Vitaceae) in the Yanghai Tombs, Xinjiang. Journal of Archaeological Science 36(7):1458-1465. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.02.010

Kramell A, Li X, Csuk R, Wagner M, Goslar T, Tarasov PE, Kreusel N, Kluge R, and Wunderlich C-H. 2014. Dyes of late Bronze Age textile clothes and accessories from the Yanghai archaeological site, Turfan, China: Determination of the fibers, color analysis and dating. Quaternary International 348(0):214-223. doi; 10.1016/j.quaint.2014.05.012

Li X, Wagner M, Wu X, Tarasov P, Zhang Y, Schmidt A, Goslar T, and Gresky J. 2013. Archaeological and palaeopathological study on the third/second century BC grave from Turfan, China: Individual health history and regional implications. Quaternary International 290-291(0):335-343. doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2012.05.010

Qiu Z, Zhang Y, Bedigian D, Li X, Wang C, and Jiang H. 2012. Sesame Utilization in China: New Archaeobotanical Evidence from Xinjiang. Economic Botany 66(3):255-263. doi: 10.1007/s12231-012-9204-5