The Eurasian Steppe
The Western Steppe
The Pontic–Caspian steppe
The Northern Pontic steppe
The Black Sea–Caspian Steppe
The Great Rivers
The Eastern Steppe
The Central Steppe
The Eurasian Steppe
Central Asia is an extremely large region of varied geography, including high passes and mountains (Tian Shan), vast deserts (Kyzyl Kum, Taklamakan), and especially treeless, grassy steppes. The vast steppe areas of Central Asia are considered together with the steppes of Eastern Europe as a homogeneous geographical zone known as the Eurasian Steppe, also called the Great Steppe or the steppes.
The Eurasian Steppe is the vast steppe ecoregion of Eurasia in the temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands biome. It stretches from Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova through Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Xinjiang, and Mongolia to Manchuria, with one major exclave, the Pannonian steppe or Puszta, located mostly in Hungary.
Since the Paleolithic age, the Steppe Route has connected Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Eastern Asia, Southern Asia, and the Middle East economically, politically, and culturally through overland trade routes.
The Steppe route is a predecessor not only of the Silk Road which developed during antiquity and the Middle Ages, but also of the Eurasian Land Bridge in the modern era.
It has been home to nomadic empires and many large tribal confederations and ancient states throughout history, such as the Xiongnu, Scythia, Cimmeria, Sarmatia, Hunnic Empire, Chorasmia, Transoxiana, Sogdiana, Xianbei, Mongols, and Göktürk Khaganate.
The Eurasian Steppe extends thousands of miles from near the mouth of the Danube almost to the Pacific Ocean. It is bounded on the north by the forests of European Russia, Siberia and Asian Russia. There is no clear southern boundary although the land becomes increasingly dry as one moves south. The steppe narrows at two points, dividing it into three major parts.
Big mammals of the Eurasian steppe were the Przewalski’s horse, the saiga antelope, the Mongolian gazelle, the goitered gazelle, the wild Bactrian camel and the onager. The gray wolf and the corsac fox and occasionally the brown bear are predators roaming the steppe. Smaller mammal species are the Mongolian gerbil, the little souslik and the bobak marmot.
Furthermore, the Eurasian steppe is home to a great variety of bird species. Threatened bird species living there are for example the imperial eagle, the lesser kestrel, the great bustard, the pale-back pigeon and the white-throated bushchat.
The primary domesticated animals raised were sheep and goats with fewer cattle than one might expect. Camels were used in the drier areas for transport as far west as Astrakhan. There were some yaks along the edge of Tibet. The horse was used for transportation and warfare.
The horse was first domesticated on the Pontic–Caspian or Kazakh steppe sometime before 3000 BC, but it took a long time for mounted archery to develop and the process is not fully understood. The stirrup does not seem to have been completely developed until 300 AD.
The major centers of population and high culture in Eurasia are Europe, the Middle East, India and China. All these regions are connected by the Eurasian Steppe route which was an active predecessor of the Silk Road. The Silk Road first became significant and Chinese silk began reaching the Roman Empire about the time that the Emperor of Han pushed Chinese power west to the Tarim Basin.
The latter started in the Guanzhong region of China and ran west along the Hexi Corridor to the Tarim Basin. From there it went southwest to Greater Iran and turned southeast to India or west to the Middle East and Europe. A minor branch went northwest along the great rivers and north of the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea.
When faced with a rich caravan the steppe nomads could either rob it, or tax it, or hire themselves out as guards. Economically these three forms of taxation or parasitism amounted to the same thing. Trade was usually most vigorous when a strong empire controlled the steppe and reduced the number of petty chieftains preying on trade.
The nomads would occasionally tolerate colonies of peasants on the steppe in the few areas where farming was possible. These were often captives who grew grain for their nomadic masters. Along the fringes there were areas that could be used for either plowland or grassland.
These alternated between one and the other depending on the relative strength of the nomadic and agrarian heartlands. Over the last few hundred years, the Russian steppe and much of Inner Mongolia has been cultivated. The fact that most of the Russian steppe is not irrigated implies that it was maintained as grasslands as a result of the military strength of the nomads.
According to the most widely held hypothesis of the origin of the Indo-European languages, the Kurgan hypothesis, their common ancestor is thought to have originated on the Pontic-Caspian steppe. The Tocharians were an early Indo-European branch in the Tarim Basin.
At the beginning of written history the entire steppe population west of Dzungaria spoke Iranian languages. From about 500 AD the Turkic languages replaced the Iranian languages first on the steppe, and later in the oases north of Iran.
Additionally, Hungarian speakers, a branch of the Uralic language family, who previously lived in the steppe in what is now Southern Russia, settled in the Carpathian basin in year 895. Mongolic languages are in Mongolia. In Manchuria one finds Tungusic languages and some others.
Tengriism was introduced by Turko-Mongol nomads. Nestorianism and Manichaeism spread to the Tarim Basin and into China, but they never became established majority religions. Buddhism spread from the north of India to the Tarim Basin and found a new home in China. By about 1400 AD, the entire steppe west of Dzungaria had adopted Islam. By about 1600 AD, Islam was established in the Tarim Basin while Dzungaria and Mongolia had adopted Tibetan Buddhism.
Raids between tribes were prevalent throughout the region’s history. This is connected to the ease with which a defeated enemy’s flocks can be driven away, making raiding profitable. In terms of warfare and raiding, in relation to sedentary societies, the horse gave the nomads an advantage of mobility.
Horsemen could raid a village and retreat with their loot before an infantry-based army could be mustered and deployed. When confronted with superior infantry, horsemen could simply ride away and retreat and regroup.
Outside of Europe and parts of the Middle East, agrarian societies had difficulty raising a sufficient number of war horses, and often had to enlist them from their nomadic enemies (as mercenaries).
Nomads could not easily be pursued onto the steppe since the steppe could not easily support a land army. If the Chinese sent an army into Mongolia, the nomads would flee and come back when the Chinese ran out of supplies.
But the steppe nomads were relatively few and their rulers had difficulty holding together enough clans and tribes to field a large army. If they conquered an agricultural area they often lacked the skills to administer it. If they tried to hold agrarian land they gradually absorbed the civilization of their subjects, lost their nomadic skills and were either assimilated or driven out.
Along the northern fringe the nomads would collect tribute from and blend with the forest tribes. From about 1240 to 1480 Russia paid tribute to the Golden Horde. South of the Kazakh steppe the nomads blended with the sedentary population, partly because the Middle East has significant areas of steppe (taken by force in past invasions) and pastoralism.
There was a sharp cultural divide between Mongolia and China and almost constant warfare from the dawn of history until the Qing conquest of Dzungaria in 1757. The nomads collected large amounts of tribute from the Chinese and several Chinese dynasties were of steppe origin.
Perhaps because of the mixture of agriculture and pastoralism in Manchuria its inhabitants, the Manchu, knew how to deal with both nomads and the settled populations, and therefore were able to conquer much of northern China when both Chinese and Mongols were weak.
The Western Steppe
The Western Steppe, or Pontic–Caspian steppe, begins near the mouth of the Danube and extends northeast almost to Kazan and then southeast to the southern tip of the Ural Mountains, that extend south to a point about 650 km (400 mi) northeast of the Caspian Sea. Its northern edge was a broad band of forest steppe which has now been obliterated by the conversion of the whole area to agricultural land.
In the southeast the Black Sea–Caspian Steppe extends between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea to the Caucasus Mountains. In the west, the Great Hungarian Plain is an island of steppe separated from the main steppe by the mountains of Transylvania. On the north shore of the Black Sea, the Crimean Peninsula has some interior steppe and ports on the south coast which link the steppe to the civilizations of the Mediterranean basin.
The Pontic–Caspian steppe
The Pontic–Caspian steppe, Pontic steppe, or Ukrainian steppe, is the vast steppeland stretching from the northern shores of the Black Sea (called Euxeinos Pontos in antiquity) as far east as the Caspian Sea. The term Ponto-Caspian region is used in biogeography for plants and animals of these steppes, and animals from the Black, Caspian, and Azov seas.
The area stretches from Dobruja in the northeastern corner of Bulgaria and southeastern Romania, through Moldova and eastern Ukraine across Russian Northern Caucasus, Southern and lower Volga regions to western Kazakhstan, forming part of the larger Eurasian steppe, adjacent to the Kazakh steppe to the east.
It is a part of the Palearctic temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands ecoregion of the temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands biome. It covers an area of 994,000 square kilometres (384,000 sq mi) of Europe, extending from Dobrudja in the northeastern corner of Bulgaria and southeastern Romania, across southern Moldova, Ukraine, through Russia and northwestern Kazakhstan to the Ural Mountains.
It is bounded by the East European forest steppe to the north, a transitional zone of mixed grasslands and temperate broadleaf and mixed forests. To the south, the Pontic steppe extends to the Black Sea, except the Crimean and western Caucasus mountains’ border with the sea, where the Crimean Submediterranean forest complex defines the southern edge of the steppes.
The steppe extends to the western shore of the Caspian Sea in the Dagestan region of Russia, but the drier Caspian lowland desert lies between the Pontic steppe and the northwestern and northern shores of the Caspian. The Kazakh Steppe bounds the Pontic steppe to the east.
The Ponto-Caspian seas are the remains of the Turgai Sea, an extension of the Paratethys which extended south and east of the Urals and covering much of today’s West Siberian Plain in the Mesozoic and Cenozoic.
The Black Sea–Caspian Steppe
The Black Sea–Caspian Steppe is an informal name for that part of the Eurasian Steppe that extends south between the Black and Caspian Seas. It is usually treated as part of the Pontic–Caspian steppe which includes the area north of the Black and Caspian Seas, but there is some reason to treat it as a distinct place.
Its natural boundaries are the Sea of Azov and Black Sea on the west, the Caucasus Mountains on the south and the Caspian Sea on the east. Its northern boundary may be taken as the triangle formed by the lower Don River and Volga River which are about 60 km apart to the west of Volgograd. This article excludes the north slope of the Caucasus which is not steppe and has a distinct geography and history.
Administratively it comprises (clockwise) the Astrakhan Oblast along the Volga, Kalmykia (west of Astrakhan oblast and reaching the Caspian in the south of the Volga), Northern Dagestan, the Stavropol Krai in the center-south, Krasnodar Krai in the west with its inclave of Adygea, southern Rostov Oblast in the northwest and the southern Volgograd Oblast in the north-center.
The largest towns are Rostov-on-Don, Volgograd and Astrakhan in the north and Krasnodar and Stavropol in the south. Main roads are Rostov southeast to Stavropol and beyond, Volgograd south to Stavropol, and Astrakhan south to Dagestan. There are railroads approximately parallel to both coasts.
The region is about 900 km at its widest and about 500 km from north to south. Low rainfall makes the whole area grassland. Rainfall decreases to the east and north (20-30 inches in the west, 13 in Volgograd and 9 in Astrakhan).
Most of the area is less than 500 feet in altitude, rising to over 1000 feet in the Stavropol Highland. The Manych Depression is not much more than 65 feet above sea level and the area around Astrakhan and part of Kalmykia is below sea level.
The Northern Pontic steppe
The northern Pontic steppe is a vast region stretching from the Dniester River in the west to the northern Caucasus in the east, from the Black Sea and the Azov Sea in the south to the East European forest–steppe zone in the north.
The regional climate is temperate, though rather continental, with the Black Sea coastal region experiencing milder winters. Temperatures range from about 6 C in January to about þ21 C in July.
Annual precipitation averages 615 mm; it is highest in the west and north and lesser in the east and southeast. Winters vary from cool along the Black Sea to cold farther inland. Summers are warm across the greater part of the area, but generally hot in the south.
The landscape consists mostly of fertile plains or steppes and plateaus, crossed by the rivers flowing into the Black Sea. The natural vegetation is grassland steppe dominated by Festuca sulcata and Stipa. The soil types mainly include chernozems and luvisols.
The Black Sea coastal zone is densely populated, containing a present human population of approximately 16 million. The northern Pontic steppe is characterized by constant moisture deficiency. The dryness in the southern areas of the steppe is six times greater as that for the northern areas.
The vegetative cover of the steppe, determined by climatic conditions, is also varied. Phytomass increases from the northern limits of the steppe (28 t/ha) to the centre (48 t/ha) and declines to 9 t/ha on its southern limits. The centre of the steppe zone is optimal with a combination of heat and sufficient precipitation.
Summer drought, linked to limited precipitation in spring and autumn, is characteristic for the steppes from the Dniester to the Don River basins. Here, in comparison to the more eastern territories, there are more mesophytes than xerophytes, the latter with
a large underground phytomass.
This makes the northern Black Sea steppe more vulnerable and responsive to climatic changes, such as increasing drought or moisture. The small amount of xerophytes with advanced root systems cannot prevent the rooting of woody vegetation. With increasing moisture, this permits easy invasion of trees into steppe territories and the southward expansion of the forest–steppe zone.
The eastern steppes from the Don to the southern Fore-Ural area are characterized by greater dryness in comparison with the (western) Ukrainian steppe. During arid periods, the landscapes of the southern areas became similar to deserts. There are numerous
xerophytes in the eastern steppe.
During moist periods, this limits the southward expansion of the forest–steppe zone. The drier character of the eastern steppe region as compared to the Black Sea area is very important for understanding the cultural processes which took place in the prehistory of Eurasia.
In the northern Pontic steppe with constant moisture deficiency, a decrease in the amount of rain and snow caused a deterioration of living conditions for an ancient population. A rise in precipitation improved existence in the steppe. The most important factor for steppe inhabitants was therefore aridity, especially in the drier southern part. Climate aridity caused deteriorating living conditions in the steppe zone.
The forest in river valleys disappeared together with forest animals. The steppe animals suffered from dryness as well. According to the paleozoological data, pronounced aridity essentially produces a vitamin imbalance and negatively affects other qualities of biological life. The lack of nourishing substances in forage negatively influenced reproduction of herbivorous animals. As a result, livestock was reduced sharply.
Mortality due to starvation, diseases in of exhausted animals, number of victims of natural disasters and predator activity increased. The same problems faced the domestic animals, contributing to an environmentally based economic crisis for local population.
There were two variants of human adaptation to the climate fluctuations: migration and transformation of the economy. During climate aridity, the steppe inhabitants experienced a crisis in their traditional way of life and a part of the population migrated to the north (middle and northern steppe). During the arid stages, the southern type of steppe vegetation spread. If aridity was strong, steppe landscapes also occupied the southern modern forest–steppe area.
These migrations also regulated the quantity of the population, which subsisted in a part of the steppe zone during the arid intervals. The migrating population retained a traditional way of life in the new regions. The newcomers continued their economy.
This is evident from the archaeological records of the Surskaja culture. The Semenovka 1 site occupied the bank of a small river in the south steppe during moist climate. Surskoy
Island 2 is located in the Dnieper River in the northern region of the steppe, and developed during aridization. However, both sites have similar proportions of wild and domestic animals.
Cultural contacts of migrants with the local population considerably changed the material cultures of both population groups. In addition, some differences between cultural changes during strong and weak aridity can be identified. For the Atlantic period, two strong and eight weak arid climate oscillations have been documented.
During strong aridity, numerous migrants moved along the steppe and new cultures formed in the southern part of the modern forest–steppe zone, which was occupied with steppe landscapes. These cultures included both the traditions of migrants from the southern steppe and the local cultures of the forest–steppe zone.
It is extremely rich in archaeological sites of all types and many ages. This impressive wealth of archaeological materials would appear to be closely linked to the key geographic position between Europe and Asia and to the combination of its various natural assets: the major rivers, moderate climate, fertile soils and biotic diversity.
The generic title encompasses the varied ethnic groups who have at times inhabited the steppes of Central Asia, Mongolia, and what is now Russia. Nomadism still persists in the steppelands, though it has generally been disapproved of by modern regimes, who have often discouraged it with varying degrees of coercion.
The Great Rivers
The northern Pontic steppe forms a geographical junction between the Pontic lowland and the southern slopes of the Ukrainian crystalline shield. It includes the Dniester, Dnieper, and Don rivers and the basins of a few smaller tributaries.
The Don is one of the major Eurasian rivers of Russia and the fifth-longest river in Europe and played an important role for traders from the Byzantine Empire. The Don basin is between the Dnieper basin to the west, the Volga basin to the east, and the Oka basin (tributary of the Volga) to the north.
The Don rises in the town of Novomoskovsk 60 kilometres (37 mi) southeast of Tula (120 km south of Moscow), and flows for a distance of about 1,870 kilometres to the Sea of Azov. From its source, the river first flows southeast to Voronezh, then southwest to its mouth.
According to the Kurgan hypothesis, the Volga-Don river region was the homeland of the Proto-Indo-Europeans c. 4000BC. The Don river functioned as a fertile cradle of civilization where the Neolithic farmer culture of the Near East fused with the hunter-gatherer culture of Siberian groups, resulting in the nomadic pastoralism of the Proto-Indo-Europeans.
The Volga is the longest river in Europe with a catchment area of 1,350,000 square km. It is also Europe’s largest river in terms of discharge and drainage basin. Some of the largest reservoirs in the world are located along the Volga. Eleven of the twenty largest cities of Russia, including the capital, Moscow, are located in the Volga’s drainage basin.
The river flows through central Russia and into the Caspian Sea, and is widely regarded as the national river of Russia. The river has a symbolic meaning in Russian culture and is often referred to as Volga-Matushka (Mother Volga) in Russian literature and folklore.
It has been an important river for mainly Slavic, Turkic people, Iranian cultures such as Scythians and Sarmatians, Finno-Ugric and Germanic people (Vikings and Goths), Greeks and cultures of Byzantine and Sasanian Empires.
Due to its geographical situation the Volga played an important role in the movement of people between east and west (from Asia to Europe) as well as south and north. The river flows in Russia through forests, forest-steppes and steppes.
The area downstream of the Volga, widely believed to have been a cradle of the Proto-Indo-European civilization. The river ranges from the Caspian Sea, where especially Asian-Oriental cultures (Turkic, Caucasian and Persian) at that time were already widespread in steppe regions, to the northern lands in western Russia where in the East European Plain Slavic culture existed with Germanic and Finno-Ugric tribes.
More precisely, the area around the Volga was inhabited by the Slavic tribes of Vyatichs and Buzhans, by Finno-Ugrics, Scandinavians and Balts, by Huns and Turkic peoples (Tatars, Kipchaks) in the first millennium AD, replacing the Scythians.
Furthermore, the river played a vital role in the commerce of the Byzantine people. The ancient scholar Ptolemy of Alexandria mentions the lower Volga in his Geography (Book 5, Chapter 8, 2nd Map of Asia). He calls it the Rha, which was the Scythian name for the river.
The Dnieper is one of the major rivers of Europe, rising in the Valdai Hills near Smolensk, Russia, before flowing through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea. It is the longest river of Ukraine and Belarus and the fourth-longest river in Europe.
The total length is approximately 2,200 km (1,400 mi) with a drainage basin of 504,000 square kilometres (195,000 sq mi). Historically, the river was an important barrier, dividing Ukraine into right and left banks.
The name Dnieper may be derived either from Sarmatian Dānu apara (“the river on the far side”) or from Scythian Dānu apr (“deep river”). By way of contrast, the name Dniester either derives from the Sarmatian dānu nazdya (“the close river”) or from a combination of Scythian Dānu (river) and Ister, the Thracian name for the Dniester.
Alternatively, according to Vasily Abaev, the name comes from a combination of Scythian Dānu (river) and Ister, the Thracian name for the Dniester, literally Dān-Ister (River Ister), the previous name of the river. The Ancient Greek name of Dniester, Tyras, is from Scythian tūra, meaning “rapid.”
The names of the Don and Danube are also from the same Indo-Iranian word *dānu (“river”). Classical authors have also referred to it as Danaster. These early forms, without -i- but with -a-, contradict Abaev’s hypothesis.
The Dniester River runs first through Ukraine and then through Moldova (from which it separates the breakaway territory of Transnistria), finally discharging into the Black Sea on Ukrainian territory again.
Along the lower half of the Dniester, the western bank is high and hilly while the eastern one is low and flat. The river represents the de facto end of the Eurasian Steppe. During the Neolithic, the Dniester River was the centre of one of the most advanced civilizations on earth at the time.
Oka is a river in central Russia, the largest right tributary of the Volga. It is navigable over a large part of its total length. Its length exceeds 1,500 km (930 mi). The Russian capital Moscow sits on one of the Oka’s tributaries – the Moskva River.
The Neolithic and Eneolithic periods were marked by the spread of agriculture and animal husbandry. At present, about 300 settlements and cemeteries of the Neolithic and the Eneolithic have been excavated in the northern Pontic steppe.
Four Neolithic cultures are known in this region. In the northern Azov Sea area, the Rakushechny Yar culture (6900–5650 BC) and the Lower Don culture (6000–5300 BC) existed. Sites of the Surskaja culture (6300–5100 BC) and the Azov–Dnieper culture (5950–4800 BC) occupied the territory adjacent to the western Azov Sea and the Dnieper basin.
The Neolithic population was engaged in animal husbandry and early agriculture. Hunting and fishing played the main role only in the economy of the Surskaja culture, but its people also knew agriculture and bred (although not numerous) domestic animals.
Genetic research has identified this region as the most probable place where horses were first domesticated. In the Pontic-Caspian steppe, Chalcolithic cultures develop in the second half of the 5th millennium BC, small communities in permanent settlements which began to engage in agricultural practices as well as herding. Around this time, some of these communities began the domestication of the horse.
According to the Kurgan hypothesis, the north-west of the region is also considered to be the homeland of the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language. The horse-drawn chariot appears in the 3rd millennium BC, by 2000 BC, in the form of war chariots with spoked wheels, thus being made more maneuverable, and dominated the battlefields.
The growing use of the horse, combined with the failure, roughly around 2000 BC, of the always precarious irrigation systems that had allowed for extensive agriculture in the region, gave rise and dominance of pastoral nomadism by 1000 BC, a way of life that would dominate the region for the next several millennia, giving rise to the Scythian expansion of the Iron Age.
Horse-based Pastoral nomadism appeared in this area some time between 4000 and 1000 BC. There is not enough data to be more specific. It is thought that the Northwest Caucasian languages are related to the ancient Hattite language and the Northeast Caucasian languages are related to Hurrian and Urartian.
This implies that the mountaineers of the Caucasus have been in their present location for a very long time. According to the most common theory the Indo-European languages originated on the steppes north of the Caucasus and Black Sea.
Some time before 3000 BC the Maikop culture appeared in Circassia and Kabardia. It is noted for its excellent gold and silver work. North on the steppe was the Yamnaya culture which was probably Indo-European. Around 1000 BC there was a bronze-age Koban culture in the Kabardian area which may have been proto-Chechen. Iron appeared in the eighth century BC.
From about 700 BC the dominant peoples on the western steppe were the Scythians, Sarmatians and then Alans. Turkic-speakers arrived about 600 AD and gradually replaced the original Iranian languages.
The small western area around the Taman peninsula had a distinct history since it was in contact with the literate civilizations of the Mediterranean basin. From the eighth century Greeks founded colonies around the Black Sea and we begin to have written reports. Maeotians was the Greek name for the peoples around the Sea of Azov.
The Hellenized Sindi people appeared with a possible capital or seaport at Anapa. Both were perhaps ancestors of the Circassians. The Greek colonies exported grain and slaves to Byzantium and beyond – a system that continued until the Russian conquest.
They formed a state called the Bosporian Kingdom which lasted in various forms until Roman times. The Byzantines spread Christianity into the mountains. Around 1000 AD the Rus’ held Tmutarakan on the Taman peninsula. At this time we hear of Kassogs who were probably ancestral Circassians.
As Byzantium declined the ports were taken over by the Genoese who held them until they were captured by the Turks around 1480. The Turks spread Islam producing a mountain religion that was basically Islamic but with many Christian and pagan survivals. In the east Persian power held mountain Dagestan but did not reach the steppes.
Since the Don and Volga are not significant barriers the history of most of this area is part of the general history of the Pontic-Caspian steppe. Since this area is far from the centers of literate civilization it is hard to know the details of what happened. Variations in dates below represent early ancestors, late survivals and other irregularities.
The pre-Scythian inhabitants of the steppe may have been Cimmerians who may have been a Thracians-Iranian mix with an Iranian elete. From around the ninth century BC the nomads of the western steppe are described as Scythians (800 BC – 100 BC).
They spoke an Iranian language and may have been the first to develop horse nomadism. Herodotus said that Scythians drove the Cimmerians from north of the Caucasus into Anatolia (about 700 BC), but this has been questioned. From around the second century BC the Sarmatians (c. 500 BC – 400 AD?) replaced the closely related Scythians, either as an ethnonym or ruling group.
The Siraces (300 BC – 200 AD) were a group of Hellenized Sarmatians who lived along the Kuban. To their east and north were the Aorsi (100 BC – 100 AD), also a Sarmatian group. In the first and second centuries AD the Alans (100 AD – 1239) came from the east and took over from the Sarmatians. Since the Sythians, Sarmatians and Alans spoke similar languages the names may represent different dominant groups ruling similar people.
From about 370 AD the Huns (376-469) overthrew the Alans, but many Alans continued to live in the area and later re-emerged. As a result of the Hun attack many Alans moved west and joined the Huns and Goths in attacking the Roman Empire.
Around 600 AD the Western Turkic Kaganate took over the lower Volga – perhaps the first appearance of Turkic languages in this area. The obscure Sabir people (c. 460 – 700s), who may have been Turkic, lived near the Caspian.
After 630 the Khazars (c. 630 – 969), who had a Turkic-speaking ruling class, formed a state mainly on the lower Volga which lasted until it was destroyed by the Rus’ about 969. Around 635 the Turkic Bulgars (c. 480–1014) were established west of the Khazars.
The Alans re-formed a state (c. 700 – 1240) in Kabardia which was Christianized by the Byzantines. The rise of Islam led to the Arab-Khazar Wars (642-737) and in 737 Arabs briefly reached the lower Volga. The Pechenegs (c. 800 – 1100) moved from north of the Caspian into this area perhaps around 850.
They pushed or were pushed westward and were eventually broken up in wars with the Byzantines. Behind them came the Cumans – Kipchaks (?-1241), two peoples that are hard to distinguish. Like the Pechenegs they continued west and fought the Rus’ and Byzantines. The appearance of the Kipchaks may mark the final establishment of Turkic languages north of the Black Sea.
The area corresponds to Cimmeria, Scythia, and Sarmatia of classical antiquity. Across several millennia the steppe was used by numerous tribes of nomadic horsemen, many of which went on to conquer lands in the settled regions of Europe and in western and southern Asia.
The Mongols took over about 1240 and their western lands became the Golden Horde which about 1500 broke up and became the Nogai Horde. In the nineteenth century the Nogai nomads were pushed southeast and the area populated by Russian agriculturists.
After the Mongols conquered the eastern side of the Caspian Subutai found himself in what is now Azerbaijan. In 1223 he crossed the Caucasus (via Derbent?), defeated the Cumans and nearly everyone else, defeated the Rus’ near the Don and returned east.
In 1236-1241 the Mongols conquered Russia and part of Eastern Europe, so they must have taken this area about this time. It was perhaps at this time that the Turkic Karachay and Balkars and the Iranian Ossets (Alans) left the steppe and sought refuge in the Caucasus mountains where they remain today.
The Mongol Empire broke into four parts before 1300 and the western part became known as the Golden horde. The conquerors quickly adopted the Kipchak Turkish language of their subjects so that the Golden Horde was also called the Kipchak Khanate. They adopted Islam at some point, perhaps the 1250s or just before 1313. Nogai Khan and Tokhtamysh fought major battles on the Terek River.
When the Golden Horde broke up about 1500 the steppe nomads came to be called the Nogai Horde. They were to some degree subjects of the Crimean Khanate which was in turn a semi-independent vassal of the Ottoman Empire. In 1557 the Nogais east of Azov broke off and formed the Lesser Nogai Horde, a name that gradually went out of use.
Around 1630 the Kalmyks migrated west from Dzungaria and occupied the land around the north end of the Caspian Sea, driving the Nogais south and west. In 1771 a significant part of them returned to Dzungaria and the Nogais returned east and north.
A few Russians were on the lower Terek by about 1520 and Cossacks were somewhere on the Don by 1550. In 1556 Russia took Astrakhan and interacted with Kabardia for a few years before losing interest in the area south of the Volga and Don.
Russian peasant colonization of the steppe continued to expand southward toward the north of this area. Russia took and lost Azov several times before gaining it permanently in 1774. In 1783 Russia annexed Crimea and thereby took over the Crimeans’ claim to rule the Nogais.
Russian settlement began mainly on the North Caucasus Line along the Kuban and Terek Rivers between the mountains and steppe. This was used as a base for the conquest of the mountains. In 1792 Black Sea Cossacks (former Zaporozhians) were settled on the lower Kuban and the area between the Yeya and Kuban Rivers became the Black Sea Host Territory.
In 1794 some Don Cossacks settled on the great bend of the Kuban. The Terek Cossacks were pushed west and became the Caucasus Line Cossack Host. In 1825 Volga Cossacks arrived in the center. Further north Cossack and peasant settlements were mixed. in the northeast the Kalmyks retained most of their land while the Nogais were pushed southeast to land south of the Kalmyks in what is now the Nogai Raion of Dagestan.
The Central Steppe
The Central Steppe or Kazakh Steppe extends from the Urals to Dzungaria. Mountains on the east side of the former Sino-Soviet border extend north almost to the forest zone with only limited grassland in Dzungaria.
To the south, it grades off into semi-desert and desert which is interrupted by two great rivers, the Amu Darya (Oxus) and Syr Darya (Jaxartes), which flow northwest into the Aral Sea and provide irrigation agriculture.
In the southeast is the densely populated Fergana Valley and west of it the great oasis cities of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara along the Zeravshan River. The southern area has a complex history, while in the north, the Kazakh Steppe proper, was relatively isolated from the main currents of written history.
Various peoples have inhabited Central Asia. The lifestyle of such people has been determined primarily by the area’s climate and geography. The aridity of the region makes agriculture difficult and distance from the sea cut it off from much trade. Thus, few major cities developed in the region. Nomadic horse peoples of the steppe dominated the area for millennia.
The term Ceramic Mesolithic is used of late Mesolithic cultures of Central Asia, during the 6th to 5th millennia BC (in Russian archaeology, these cultures are described as Neolithic even though farming is absent).
It is characterized by its distinctive type of pottery, with point or knob base and flared rims, manufactured by methods not used by the Neolithic farmers. The earliest manifestation of this type of pottery may be in the region around Lake Baikal, a rift lake located in southern Siberia, Russia, between Irkutsk Oblast to the northwest and the Buryat Republic to the southeast.
This kind of pottery appears in the Elshan or Yelshanka or Samara culture on the Volga in Russia by about 7000 BC., and from there spread via the Dnieper-Donets culture to the Narva culture of the Eastern Baltic.
Relations between the steppe nomads and the settled people in and around Central Asia were marked by conflict. The nomadic lifestyle was well suited to warfare, and the steppe horse riders became some of the most militarily potent people in the world, due to the devastating techniques and ability of their horse archers.
The central steppe is far from the areas of literate civilization and is therefore poorly documented. Scattered nomadic groups maintained herds of sheep, goats, horses, and camels, and conducted annual migrations to find new pastures (a practice known as transhumance).
The people lived in yurts (or gers) – tents made of hides and wood that could be disassembled and transported. Each group had several yurts, each accommodating about five people. While the semi-arid plains were dominated by the nomads, small city-states and sedentary agrarian societies arose in the more humid areas of Central Asia.
The Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) of the early 2nd millennium BC was the first sedentary civilization of the region, practicing irrigation farming of wheat and barley and possibly a form of writing.
Bactria-Margiana probably interacted with the contemporary Bronze Age nomads of the Andronovo culture, the originators of the spoke-wheeled chariot, who lived to their north in western Siberia, Russia, and parts of Kazakhstan, and survived as a culture until the 1st millennium BC.
These cultures, particularly Bactria-Margiana, have been posited as possible representatives of the hypothetical Aryan culture ancestral to the speakers of the Indo-Iranian languages. Later the strongest of Sogdian city-states of the Fergana Valley rose to prominence.
After the 1st century BC, these cities became home to the traders of the Silk Road and grew wealthy from this trade. The steppe nomads were dependent on these settled people for a wide array of goods that were impossible for transient populations to produce. The nomads traded for these when they could, but because they generally did not produce goods of interest to sedentary people, the popular alternative was to carry out raids.
A wide variety of people came to populate the steppes. Nomadic groups in Central Asia included the Huns and other Turks, as well as Indo-Europeans such as the Tocharians, Persians, Scythians, Saka, Yuezhi, Wusun, and others, and a number of Mongol groups. Despite these ethnic and linguistic differences, the steppe lifestyle led to the adoption of very similar culture across the region.
Periodically, tribal leaders or changing conditions would cause several tribes to organize themselves into a single military force, which would then often launch campaigns of conquest, especially into more ‘civilized’ areas.
A few of these types of tribal coalitions included the Huns’ invasion of Europe, various Turkic migrations into Transoxiana, the Wu Hu attacks on China and most notably the Mongol conquest of much of Eurasia.
The dominance of the nomads ended in the 16th century as firearms allowed settled people to gain control of the region. The Russian Empire, the Qing dynasty of China, and other powers expanded into the area and seized the bulk of Central Asia by the end of the 19th century.
Most of the “peoples” mentioned were some tribe or clan that gained power over its neighbors and became important enough to be noticed by literate historians. Some were definite ethnic groups and some movements were genuine folk migrations, but in most cases it is uncertain.
At some time in the distant past people of European appearance lived in or crossed the central steppe and left the Tarim mummies in the Tarim basin. In the centuries around 3000 BC we find the semi-nomadic and probably Indo-European Yamnaya culture west of the central steppe.
East of the central steppe was the rather similar Afanasevo culture. The Yamnaya-Afanasevo complex is probably connected to the eastward spread of the Indo-European languages, especially Tokharian. Between them on the central steppe was the horse-using Botai culture.
After 2000 BC the Andronovo Culture complex was southeast of the Urals. They had chariots, fortified towns, spread southeast to much of central Asia and are associated with the rise of the Indo-Iranian languages. Iron appears about 1000 BC. Around 500 BC Herodotus vaguely described the area as inhabited by Massagetae, Issidonians and others.
During the last 2,500 years nearly all movements on the steppe have been from east to west. From about 1000 BC all the known peoples of the western and central steppe spoke Iranian languages. Around 200 BC we begin to get Chinese reports from the east. From about 500 AD the Turkic languages expanded from Mongolia and replaced most of the Iranian languages.
The Eastern Steppe
The eastern steppe, the eastern third of the Eurasian Steppe, is the grasslands of Mongolia and northern China. It includes Xinjiang, the Mongol Steppe and Manchuria. Most of its recorded history deals with conflicts between the Chinese and the steppe nomads. Most of the sources are Chinese.
The area is bounded on the north by the forests of Siberia, on the east by mountains along the Pacific coast, on the southeast by a small area of agricultural China, on the south by the Tibetan plateau and on the west by the mountains along the former Sino-Soviet border. Between these mountains and Siberia the so-called Dzungarian Gate opens out onto the vast Kazakh steppe to the west.
Civilization emerged in north China in the second millennium BC. At this time the Tarim Basin was inhabited by people of European appearance who probably spoke an Indo-European language (Tocharian). They may have introduced the chariot and bronze-working into China.
The later Yuezhi in the Gansu corridor may have also been Tocharian. The steppes were inhabited by various disunited tribes that the Chinese called Rong (west), Beidi (north), Donghu (east) and other names.