As the spatial relics of early human activities, settlement sites carry and record information about early human adaptation and transformation of the environment, interpreting and revealing the environmental information of settlement distribution can provide conditions for further understanding the interaction between humans and the environment during this period. Therefore, by studying the changing patterns of the distribution of human prehistoric sites and their geographical background, we can understand the adaptation and transformation processes of prehistoric humans to the living environment1,2,3,4, which are important topic in environmental archaeology research. Attempts to explain the relationships among prehistoric human settlement information, the development of early civilizations, and the natural environment date back to the 1950s5,6,7. These explanations allow us to use the past to further our understanding of the dynamic and complex systems in which humans interact with nature. Discussing the relationship between the spatial and temporal distribution of settlements and the geographic environment around the changing patterns of human prehistoric sites and their geographic context1,2,3, is an important environmental archaeological study issue. Studies of early human activities in Europe found that Neolithic settlers preferred Central European loess areas8, such as the so-called tribal areas in central and northern Germany9,10. A study of alpine sites in South Tyrol, Italy, reconstructed Mesolithic human settlement strategies and migration patterns in the alpine region at high altitudes11. In addition, over the past few decades, discussions of variable patterns and geographic contexts of human prehistoric sites have increasingly focused on interacting systems of ecological or livelihood patterns, and interactions with local–regional–global-scale tectonics, climates, or environments12,13,14,15,16,17,18.
Currently, the preference for human settlement in China is mainly based on the geographical and environment characteristics of site distribution, and the natural environment preference of prehistoric settlement sites in different regions and periods has been explored10,19,20,21,22,23, as well as social functional preferences24,25, explaining social domination, transportation, military defence, etc. The impact of sexual needs on settlement site selection reflects the obvious regional and epochal differences in human settlement. This evolution of human settlement preferences reflects the environmental constraints of early human settlement and the adaptation of human production to changes in human–land relations. However, the regionally distinct and asynchronous results revealed by different temporal and spatial scales suggest that case studies from more perspectives are needed to help us to understand the epochal characteristics and variability of human settlement in human–land interaction systems.
Xinjiang is an important part of western China (Fig. 1), with a total area of approximately 1.66 million km2. After undergoing changes in a dry, wet, cold and hot Holocene climate26,27,28, a typical continental climate emerged. Mountains (Kunlun Mountains, Tianshan Mountains, Altai Mountains) and basins (Tarim Basin, Jungar Basin) in Xinjiang are staggered, and geographical landscapes such as mountains, deserts, glaciers, grasslands, woodlands, and the Gobi Desert, are widely distributed, with diverse temporal and spatial distributions. At the same time, Xinjiang is adjacent to Gansu and Qinghai in the east and Tibet in the south. It borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to the northeast, north, west and southwest. Xinjiang is located in the central area where the northern Eurasian steppe culture overlaps with the Gansu–Qinghai cultural circle in northern China29,30,31,32,33. While colliding and communicating with surrounding cultures, Xinjiang’s prehistoric culture presents a mix of multicultural elements. Since the Holocene, the dry, wet, cold and hot climate change processes in the Xinjiang region26,27,28, have prompted corresponding changes in the natural environment, and its human culture is in a complex environment. Abundant cultural types have been born out of repeated adaptations and cultural exchanges31, making Xinjiang ideal for conducting environmental archaeological research. The current research on the prehistoric culture in the region has discussed cultural exchanges, livelihood patterns, climate and environmental change processes and their impacts of prehistoric humans26,31,32,33,34,35,36,37,38,39,40, but there have been fewer studies of behavioural preferences in settlement selection, and more emphasis has been placed on interpreting the decisive impact of the environment on human beings. The extraction and analysis of the geographical environment and social environment preferences of human settlement have been limited, and the research on the role of human subjectivity and agency has been insufficient.
In the prehistoric period, the inhabitants of this area created a brilliant historical culture and had cultural exchanges with the Central Plains and the surrounding areas. The early history of Xinjiang can be traced back to the late Palaeolithic. A large number of stone tools have been found on the western platform of Jiaohe Guchenggou in Turpan and at the Tong Tiandong and Buxel camel stone Palaeolithic sites. In the vast areas of the southern and northern Tianshan Mountains in Xinjiang, there are many fine stone and Neolithic remains from the Middle Stone Age. Researchers have unearthed fine stone, stone flakes and stone core stones, grinding plates, grinding rods, stone balls, grinding jade axes, jade adzes, and a small amount of coloured pottery and ceramic fragments with embossed and painted patterns41,42,43,44,45. From approximately 4500 a BP to 2250 a BP (Before Present), the oases in Xinjiang entered the Bronze Age and then the Early Iron Age31,46,47,48,49, and a large number of settlement sites from this period remain. The division of this time remains controversial, but this paper argues that the emergence and popularization of metal tools played two distinct roles in productivity and civilization progress, so this paper considers the time when the settlements entered the Iron Age, i.e., the time when bronze tools were widely replaced by iron tools, as the end of the Bronze Age.
This paper selects Xinjiang, China, as the research area; takes the human settlements (sites) between the Palaeolithic and Bronze Ages in Xinjiang, starting at nearly 45 ka, as an example to construct an early human settlement preference system; and explores the temporal and spatial characteristics of settlement preference. Based on the settlement preference characteristics, the Maxent model is used to predict the settlements in different periods to further understand the evolution of civilization in Xinjiang, to understand the relationship between the early human settlement process and the natural and social environment; and to provide a reference for the excavation and protection of sites in subsequent steps.
In summary, this article mainly answers the following questions: