Economic Botany

, Volume 66, Issue 3, pp 255–263

Sesame Utilization in China: New Archaeobotanical Evidence from Xinjiang


  • Zhenwei Qiu
    • Department of Scientific History and ArchaeometryGraduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences
    • The Laboratory of Human Evolution, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and PaleoanthropologyChinese Academy of Sciences
  • Yongbing Zhang
    • Academia Turfanica of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region
  • Dorothea Bedigian
    • Missouri Botanical Garden
  • Xiao Li
    • Academia Turfanica of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region
  • Changsui Wang
    • Department of Scientific History and ArchaeometryGraduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences
    • The Laboratory of Human Evolution, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and PaleoanthropologyChinese Academy of Sciences
    • Department of Scientific History and ArchaeometryGraduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences
    • The Laboratory of Human Evolution, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and PaleoanthropologyChinese Academy of Sciences

DOI: 10.1007/s12231-012-9204-5

Cite this article as:
Qiu, Z., Zhang, Y., Bedigian, D. et al. Econ Bot (2012) 66: 255. doi:10.1007/s12231-012-9204-5


Sesame Utilization in China: New Archaeobotanical Evidence from Xinjiang. A cache of sesame (Sesamum indicum L.) seeds, discovered in the Thousand Buddha Grottoes at Boziklik, Turpan, China, dating to ca. 700 years before present (BP), is hard evidence of their use in China since that time. Morphological and anatomical features suggest a white sesame cultivar. The sizeable quantity unearthed implies that sesame was a valued commodity that could provision the monks and enrich the diet of ancient inhabitants as an oil source.

Key Words

ArchaeobotanyBuddhismsesameThousand Buddha GrottoesTurpan



Botanical Description

Sesame (Sesamum indicum L., Pedaliaceae) is an erect, annual herb that is grown from tropical to temperate zones of Africa, Asia, and Latin America; a modest amount is also cultivated in the southern United States (Bedigian 2010d; IPGRI and NBPGR 2004). Sesame is of nutritional significance for its dual use as leafy vegetable and oilseed (Bedigian 2010d, 2012). Consumed raw, its leaves are especially beneficial during food scarcity (Latham 1979; Wu et al. 2007; Zhao 2010). Sesame is valued primarily for its seeds, which are pressed for oil, used intact, or ground for flavoring. Its seeds are rich in oil, protein, Ca, Fe, and vitamin E (Bedigian 2000). Sesame is a traditional medicine, globally (Bedigian 2003b, 2004b, 2010d, 2010f). It is efficacious as an antioxidant and a laxative, and it promotes blood circulation, nourishes the liver and kidney, and blackens hair (Bedigian 2003b; Fang and Chang 2007; Shyu and Hwang 2002).

A source of high quality oil and protein, sesame oil is valued for its stability, color, nutty flavor, and resistance to rancidity, which may explain its frequent designation as “Queen of the Oilseed Crops” worldwide (Bedigian 2000, 2003a; 2010f; Kokilavani et al. 2007). Sesame oil is healthier than most, rich in the essential amino acid methionine, P, Mg, Ca, and vitamin E, as well as trace amounts of elements Mo, Zn, Fe, Co, and I (Bedigian 2010e). Considering its versatility, sesame appreciation in China has been strong since antiquity; about two–thirds of the sesame grown in China today, is consumed as oil (Bedigian 2010c; Zhao 2010).

Introduction to Relevant Chinese Archaeological Reports and Confusion in the Literature

Sesame was a prominent oil crop in ancient China. Our earliest evidence comes from textual references that date to the Han Dynasty (ca. 2200 BP), commonly considered within China to be one of the most prosperous periods in its history, characterized by an explosion of technological inventions and innovations, including many crop introductions. According to Li Shih–Chen’s classic ancient Chinese herbal and medical treatise, Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu 本草纲目 [Standard Inventory of Pharmacology, compiled mid–1000 BP] (1596), sesame was brought from the West by General Qian Zhang during the Early Han Dynasty (Western Han Dynasty), probably via the Silk Route (Bedigian and Harlan 1986). Other ancient written records, such as the Meng Xi Bi Tan 梦溪笔谈 (Brush Talks from Dream Brook) by Kuo Shen (855–919 BP), also indicated that sesame may have been introduced into China by General Qian Zhang, specifying an ancient country named Dawan (Ferghana, today’s Fergana Basin of Uzbekistan) during the Han dynasty (Fang and Chang 2007).

“Sesame seems to have been particularly important, for it alone, appears three times in the text. The kind of ‘barbarian grain food’ (hu–fan 胡饭) enjoyed by Emperor Ling (1762–1782 BP) was in all likelihood cooked with flavorful sesame (Hou Han Shu 后汉书 [Book of the Later Han Dynasty (Eastern Han Dynasty)], chih 13: 8b)” … “Under the Later Han, a great variety of noodle foods were cooked, including boiled noodles, steamed buns (modern man–t’ou 馒头), and baked cakes with sesame seeds” (S.H. Ch’i 1949, cited in Yü 1977). The Chinese name (huma 胡麻, hu = foreign, ma = generic term for fiber) indicates an overseas introduction.

The conquest of Ferghana and neighboring regions in 2051 BP allowed the Han to seize a large number of the “heavenly” long–legged horses valued for cavalry maneuvers; it also gave China control of the trade routes running north and south of the Taklamakan Desert. In return for its silk and gold, China received wine, spices, woolen fabrics, grapes (Vitis vinifera L.), pomegranates (Punica granatum L.), sesame, fababeans (Vicia faba L.), and alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.). In fact, the name indicated by Kuo Shen was huma, a term that can be interpreted either as Sesamum indicum or flax (Linum usitatissimum L., Linaceae) (Bedigian 2004a). Additionally, historians continue to question whether General Zhang really introduced huma as well as other fiber plants or grape into ancient China during that period (Jiang et al. 2009; Laufer 1919; Shi 2008). Laufer (1919) reviewed the confusion in construal of huma variously as flax, hemp (Cannabis sativa L.), or sesame. Adding to the confusion, according to Wu et al. (2007), huma should be identified as flax, not sesame.

To confirm the written record, scholars have been searching for physical evidence of ancient sesame. It was reported that seeds of sesame were excavated in several Neolithic sites in China, such as Qian’shan’yang 钱山漾 (cal. 4200–3900 BP), Shui’tian’ban 水田坂 (cal. 4000 BP), as well as Long’nan sites 龙南 (cal. 5360–4200 BP) (SM and BWCRP 1990, 1999; Wang and Mou 1980; ZPCCRM 1960a, b). Chen (1990) also described ancient sesame seeds discovered at the Qian’shan’yang and Shui’tian’ban sites. However, the layer where sesame seeds were uncovered was in fact not from “historic times” (2430–2720 BP) as she indicated, but from an earlier, Neolithic context. Even so, upon detailed comparison against a standard modern counterpart, that sample was re–assessed as Cucumis sp. (Cucurbitaceae) (You 2008; Zhao 2010; Zheng and Chen 2006).

Subsequently, credible physical evidence of sesame in China was discovered in Xinjiang. Huma seeds were reportedly unearthed in the ancient cities of Tonggusibashi 通古斯八什 and Yanqi 焉耆 as well as in the Alagou 阿拉沟 Tombs (Huang 1958, 1959, 1981; Wang 1983; Zhang 1983). Wang’s description (1983) indicated those huma were “slightly flattened, ovate seed with deep brown testa, and smooth, lustrous surface.” Those huma were identified tentatively as flax (investigation ongoing).

Wang (1983) reported finding sesame seeds and capsules at the Astana 阿斯塔那 Cemeteries (ECA 1986a) in Turpan; however, his brief mention simply pointed them out as a minor addition to the crop inventory of ancient Xinjiang. Neither specimen was scrutinized closely, especially as regards chronology. Given this background, the large quantity of sesame seeds discovered at the Thousand Buddha Grottoes at Boziklik sheds new light on sesame utilization at ancient Turpan, in northwest China.

Archaeological Study Area

The Thousand Buddha Grottoes at Boziklik (BTCRP 1985; ECA 1986b) (42°57′24.42″ N; 89°32′28.29″ E) are among the famous large Buddhist cave temples in Xinjiang, about 50 km northeast of Turpan, and 15 km north of the ancient city of Gaochang (Fig. 1). Located at the Mutougou 木头沟 Valley along the cliffs of the Flaming Mountains, some caves are hewn into the cliff, while others even show adobe masonry added to the facade after carving. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Albert von Le Coq (Germany), Aurel Stein (UK), and explorers from Russia, Japan, and elsewhere, investigated the caves (ECA 1986b). Cut in the late Northern and Southern Dynasties (1361–1530 BP), the Thousand Buddha Grottoes at Boziklik thrived during the Tang, Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, and Song to Yuan Dynasties (5 c. – 14 c. BP), when it had been one of the prominent Buddhist centers of Central Asia. Originally numbering 83, there are 57 caves still extant; 40 contain more than 1,200 m2 of decorated murals. The Thousand Buddha Grottoes at Boziklik was a Buddhist temple of great importance and had become a Buddhist nexus between East and West over several centuries (Tian 2004). Boziklik was part of Chinese territory at that time, during the Yuan Dynasty (6 c. – 7 c. BP), when China’s geographic breadth was more expansive than at any other time throughout its history. The government supported the construction of many Buddhist temples and pagodas along the Silk Road (Tian 2004).
Fig. 1

Location of the Thousand Buddha Grottoes at Boziklik. (a) Location of Xinjiang in China. (b) Locations where sesame was discovered in Xinjiang (TBGB, the Thousand Buddha Grottoes at Boziklik; AC, the Astana Cemetery; ACG, the Ancient City of Gaochang). (c) Location of the Thousand Buddha Grottoes at Boziklik, Turpan (Adapted from Jiang et al. 2006).

Turpan had been a region where multiple religions coexisted since ancient times (Tian 2004), especially during the Jin to Tang Dynasties (10 c. – 17 c. BP) and the following Yuan Dynasty (6 c. –7 c. BP), reflected in a fast–developing economy, prosperous agriculture, as well as frequent cultural exchanges between East and West. Shamanism may have been the sole indigenous religion before the prehistoric period (Tian 2004). Buddhism, a religion introduced initially from India, developed in some areas of Xinjiang ca. 1900 BP. Written evidence indicates that Buddhism was introduced into the Turpan region by the end of the 3rd or the beginning of the 4th c., and reached its heyday during the 10 c. –13 c. BP. Cereal staples there included wheat (Triticum aestivum L.), barley (Hordeum vulgare L.), foxtail millet (Setaria italica (L.) P. Beauv.), broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum L.), hemp, pulse (Leguminosae), etc., and fiber plants included cotton (Gossypium spp.) and hemp. Grape (Vitis vinifera L.), peach (Amygdalus persica L.), apricot (Armeniaca vulgaris Lam.), pear (Pyrus spp.), walnut (Juglans regia L.), dark plum (Prunus mume (Siebold) Siebold & Zucc.), Chinese date (Ziziphus jujuba Mill.), sweet melon (Cucumis melo subsp. melo L.), and pomegranate (Punica granatum L.) constituted fruit crops excavated in this area. Oil crops unearthed there included hemp, flax, and sesame (Huang 1959; Wang 1983; Zhang 1983).

The Bureau of Turpan Cultural Relics Prefecture carried out a salvage excavation, 1980–1981, directed by Yongbing Zhang (BTCRP 1985). Unearthed in the level corridor of an adobe step channel was a single–handled spouted clay jar, filled with 5 kg of well–preserved plant seeds (Fig. 2b). The jar (Fig. 2a) is red in color, 46 cm in height, and 13 cm in diameter, with a 14.5 cm diameter base. Wheel thrown, the jug rises to a high collar and has a flat bottom. The shoulder is rilled by string marks forming curves and dots.
Fig. 2

(a) The single–handle red jar unearthed from the Thousand Buddha Grottoes at Boziklik. Scale measure = 20 cm. (b) Ancient sesame seeds filled the jar. Scale measure = 10 mm.

Materials and Methods

Identification of the archaeological seeds (Fig. 2b) as Sesamum indicum followed descriptions by Bedigian (2000), Liu et al. (2008), and Mkamilo and Bedigian (2007). The seeds contained in the single–handled red jar (Specimen No. 80TBI1:8), are now deposited in the Turpan Museum in Xinjiang, China. We compared modern black and white sesame seeds with the excavated sample at the laboratory of the Department of Scientific History and Archaeometry, Graduate University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The seeds examined included whole and hulled sesame; we used a dissecting knife to remove the testa and a Nikon SMZ1000 stereo microscope for photography. A BAL–TEC SCD 005 Sputter Coater showered ancient and modern seeds affixed to stubs, with gold and platinum. Photographs were taken using a Quanta 200 scanning electron microscope (SEM), at an accelerating voltage of 30 kV. A Vernier caliper was utilized to measure 20 randomly chosen seeds; 100 intact seeds were weighed using a Mettler AE160 Analytical Balance (± 0.1 mg accuracy).

The excavated samples were dated with an accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS) 14C at Peking University, then calibrated using IntCal04 (Reimer et al. 2004) and OxCal v3.10 (Bronk Ramsey 2005).


Records document the absolute age of the Thousand Buddha Grottoes at Boziklik at ca. 5 c. – 14 c. BP (ECA 1986b). The AMS date obtained from the seeds was ca. 620 years BP, which is consistent with the documented age (Table 1).
Table 1

Results of radiocarbon dating: Age of the ancient sesame recovered.

Sample No.

14C years (T1/2 = 5568)

Dendrocalibrated Age Ranges (± 1σ, 68.2 %)

Dendrocalibrated Age Ranges (± 2σ, 95.4 %)


620 ± 20 BP

1300 AD (29.0 %)–1325 AD

1290 AD (95.4 %)–1400 AD

1345 AD (26.4 %)–1370 AD

1380 AD (12.8 %)–1395 AD

Varying in color from dark brown to light yellow, the flattened seeds are pear–shaped, semicircular distal from the hilum, and pointed proximal to the hilum. The seeds are 3.0 – 3.5 mm long (\( \overline {\text{x}} = 3.3 \) mm, N = 20), 1.7 – 2.1 mm wide (\( \overline {\text{x}} = 1.9 \) mm, N = 20), 0.8 – 0.9 mm thick (\( \overline {\text{x}} = 0.8 \) mm, N = 20); the seed weight is ca. 0.3 g per 100 seeds.

With narrow ridges around the circumference, the seeds have a straight line (raphe) through two ends on dorsal side (Fig. 3i), especially noticeable when the testa was hulled (Fig. 3k). The ventral side is smooth and the hilum is present (Fig. 3j, l).
Fig. 3

Intact and hulled sesame seeds. (a)–(d), modern black seeds; (e)–(h), modern white seeds; (I)–(L), excavated sesame seeds stored in the jar. (a), (b), (e), (f), (i), and (j) intact seeds; (c), (d), (g), (h), (k), and (l) hulled seeds. Scale measure = 2 mm.

Narrow ridges around the circumference on the ancient seed are in evidence (Fig. 4i). The testa is scabrous, with a fine, granular surface (Fig. 4k). SEM photographs of the seeds reveal the epidermis with a conspicuously warty ornamentation that is uniformly close to spherical and trimly arranged (Fig. 4l). The diameter of each granule is 30 – 40 μm. Microscopic comparison of modern black and white seeds reveal dissimilar characters: The epidermis of black seeds showed regular polygonal honeycomb–like depressions (Fig. 4c, d), while fine granules on white ones (Fig. 4g, h). Microscopic examination suggests these ancient seeds from the Thousand Buddha Grottoes at Boziklik share characteristics consistent with a white sesame cultivar.
Fig. 4

SEM micrographs showing structure of sesame seed with testa epidermis. (a)–(d), black seeds; (e)–(h), white seeds; (i)–(l), excavated seeds. (a, e, i), dorsal seed surface; (b, f, j), ventral seed surface. Scale measure = 1 mm. (c) Small pits on testa epidermis. Scale measure = 500 μm. (g) and (k) fine granules on testa epidermis. Scale measure = 500 μm. (d), magnification of testa epidermis showing regular polygonal, honeycomb–like depressions. Scale measure = 100 μm. (h) and (l), magnification of testa epidermis showing warty projections. Scale measure = 100 μm.

Sesame in the Buddhist Economy

Scrolls from the Dunhuang Caves (Thousand Buddhas Grottoes, 7 c. – 10 c. BP) provide evidence of sesame in the local economy: “A virtual monopoly of two industries which required considerable capital investment in heavy equipment, the pressing of oil from the seeds of hemp and sesame, and the milling of flour … can improve our scanty knowledge of contemporary milling machinery. The monasteries appear to have farmed out the machinery to households of specialists (also, it seems, monastic dependents), who undertook the management of the mill in return for a share of the profits” (Twitchett 1966:46).

Conclusions and Discussion

Our discovery of 5 kg of sesame seeds stored in an elegant jug indicates that sesame was highly valued as a crop ca. 700 years BP, and suggests sesame’s significance in regional economic, social, and cultural affairs. It is reasonable to believe that the adoption of sesame as an oil crop supported the dietary preferences of monks’ vegan lifestyles and rituals, as described here. Decorative murals and well–preserved documents indicate that those monks included Han Chinese (who predominated), Minority Chinese, even some other ethnicities. Sesame, the only oilseed unearthed at the Thousand Buddha Grottoes in such a substantial quantity up to now, would provide a source of oil, protein, and micronutrients in this vegetarian milieu. Our new discovery, taken in combination with the sesame capsules excavated in Astana Cemeteries, indicate that sesame was widely utilized in the region. Beyond its direct use, it seems that sesame contributed to China’s flourishing Buddhist culture and its cultivation may have encouraged commerce in ancient Turpan.

An extremely dry climate, and sesame’s own natural resistance to oxidation and rancidity resulting from its lignan constituents, sesamin and sesamolin (Bedigian 1988, 2000; 2010b; Bedigian et al. 1985), protected the seeds unearthed in the Thousand Buddha Grottoes at Boziklik. Sesame cultivars are often categorized by testa color. These range from white to black, with gray, brown, yellow, red, tan, ivory, and others (Bedigian and Harlan 1983; Bedigian et al. 1986). The oil content of Chinese cultivars links to testa color as follows: The lighter the seed color, the higher the oil content (AFAHPRC 1979). It must be noted that no generalization about correlation between seed color and oil content can be made about all sesame cultivars (Bedigian 2010a), and cultivars from other geographic regions are at variance with this observation (Bedigian 2010a; Bedigian and Harlan 1983). In this study, in spite of its brown testa (discoloration perhaps due to age–related oxidation), based on testa surface morphology that shows fine granules, we consider our specimens to be a white seed cultivar, which hints at a high oil–containing cultivar.


The authors thank Xiaofei Xia for SEM service; Yiwen Gong provided literature search. The Strategic Priority Research Program – Climate Change: Carbon Budget and Relevant Issues, Chinese Academy of Sciences (Grant No. XDA05130501) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 41102114) supported this study.

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© The New York Botanical Garden 2012