The Steppe Crucible: Geography and People

Figure 1.--The vast Eurasian Steppe is pierced by mountains in Kazikstan, separating the European and Asiatic steppe. The productive grasslands gave rise to the largest nomadic tribes of the world as well ass the horse--a combination resulting in military power that has a profound impact on human history.

The vast, grassy plains of central Asia and Eastern Europe have played a major role in world history. This has been the crucible for forming over millenia a war-like people. The savage nomadic warriors of the steppe that have played a major role in both European and Asian history. Perhaps it was the harshness of the environment that was the critical factor. Perhaps it was vast grasslands that provided the perfect range for horses, a critical element in warfare. And competition for resources meant that the steppe tribes have to developm military skills to survive. These war-like nomadic tribes frim central Asia have played amajor role in history, at times attacking west and at times attacking east toward China. The critical factor appears to have been China. When China was weak the central Asian nomads struck east and south at China. When China was strong, it deflected the central Asian tribes westward. It was pressure from these nomadic tribes that drove the Germans toward the Roman Empire, eventually overrunning it. At times the nomads have focused on the riches of nearby China. The construction of the Greal Wall was a response to their depredations. Most of what we know about the Steppe people, incliding the Mongols comes from the people they conquered pr wared with because they were a pre-literate people.


The Eurasian Steppe is a strip of land stretching from Ukraine to Mongolia. Few areas have a more profound impact in world history. Steppe is the term used to denote this strip of grasslands that are located in both Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Steppe ia an area of low-precipitation, enough for hardy, regerative grasses, but not enough for trees. It is similar in that regard to the American Midwest and the South Ammerian Llanos and Pampas. It is the Eurasian Steppe, however, that has had a huge impact on history, both European and asian history. The Steppe is not flat, but often rolling hills pierced in some areas by mountains. The most important mountaneous interuption is north/south axis of the Urals. This divides the Steppe into a western (European) and eastern (Asian) area. The western Steppe lies mainly in the Ukraine along with adjcent areas of Russia, and Kazakhstan. The ) and eastern Steppe (which lies chiefly in Mongolia and China). The western Steppe is wetter and warmer meaning more productive than the estern Steppe. It was also the area of the Steppe that people first reached.

European (Pontic–Caspian) Steppe geography

The European or Pontic–Caspian Steppe is the vast plains and rolling countryside of southeastern Europe. It begins along the northern coast of the Black Sea (Euxeinos Pontos / Εὔξεινος Πόντος by the Greeks in antiquity). And extends as far east as the Caspian Sea. In modern trms this meaans from Moldova and western Ukraine across the southern to western Kazakhstan. It is the eastern part of the vast Eurasian Steppe. Geographers wwould describe as part of the Palearctic temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands ecoregion of the temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands biome. The term Ponto-Caspian region is commnly used biogeography to identify the flora and fauna the western Steppe. Modern genetic research has confirmd what historians and biolgists have long speculted that it was here that horses evolved .

Asian Steppe geography

Central Asia is primrily covered by steppe and deserts. They fill the area between the frigid northern forests and the fertile southern basins of China in the east and the Fertile Cresent (Mesopotamia) in the west which served as the great centers of early civilization. Siberia is located to the north of the Asiatic Sreppe and is asubstantial portion of northern Asia. It is an area of frigid winters anbd land covered primarily by softwood forest and in the extremne nort, Arctic tundra.


Modern genetic research has found that the secomd major human migration out of Africa ocuuted northword through the Levant and the Caucauses into the European Steppe. It is believed that they were following herding ankimals, al least part of the way on this journey. Some 90 percent of humanity is believe to be related tothe people whi made this migratory journey. From the Aspian Steppe, tribes moving west became Europeans. Tribes moving east became Asians.

European Steppe demographics

The tribes of the Europen Steppe have had an amazing imppact on Human history. They appear to be the people who spoke Proto-Indo-European language. This means that most of the moderm European, Middle Eastern, CentralAsian, and South asian languages. And this is just the behining of the assomplishments of thee remrkble people. It was thesepeople who first cm in contact with the horse and domsticatd it. [Anthony] It was also on the European Steppe that the spoked wheel and chariots developed. The chariot was the first impoertanbt military use of the horse, preceeding calkvalry. This development ws of emense significnce in warfre which is one reason that Indo-European languages developed in the west. Modern racial differences developed after this east-west split. As did linguistic differences.

Asian Steppe demographics

After the migratory spread of humanity, the area of modern Siberia was populated by small nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers many of whom evolved into reindeer herders. Thus in comparison, the Steppe to the south was mild and fertile. This mean a larger population could be suupported meaning larger, more powerful tribes to develop nd flourish. Because of the vast extent od the Steppe, the largest nomadic tribes ever known flourished. Throughout much of history these tribes fought each other for control of the Steppe. Thus they had only limited impact on neighboring areas. When the tribes united or a particularly powerful tribe emerged, which occured over time, the impact on srrounding peoples was profound, both on China and Europe. The climate of the steppe set up a powerful historical dynamic -- the war-like Steppe peoples throughout history tended to migrate westward into the more fertile western grasslands. And it parts exlain the ethnic shift over time from Indo-Europeans to Asiatics. And at times when power vacuumes appeared in the China or when powerful tribal confederations developed, the Steppe tribes also moved south into the ferile areas of China.


The Central Asian steppe is known have been inhabited since the bronze age (2000- 1500 BC). The early steppe societies are poorly known. They were pre-litrate, nomdic socities. As aesultt they did not leave many of the artifacts that archiologists use to study early civilizations. They did work with metal and thus there are some metal artifacts, including bronze, silver and gold. Bronze axes have been found in Siberia (1500 BC). Beautiful Cimerian bronze and gold atifacts have been found north of the Black Sea (1200 BC). Some of the most beautiful gold artifact were Scythian found noth of the Cspian Sea (800 BC). Hsiong-Nu bronze art have been found around Lake Baikal and Chita (600 BC).

The Horse

The horse has a strange evolutionary history and one that is still being worked out. Scientists trace the origins of the horse, not to Eurasian Steppe but to the forests of North America. Here the first ancestor of the modern horse browsed leaves and fruits (about 50 million BP). There is sone difference of opinion on the date. It was a rather small ancestor, only about 2 feet high. Scientists call it eohippus (dawn horse). The modern horse developed and florished on the steppe like grasslands of North America (about 1.5 million BP). Soon after in geological time, before the evolution of modern man, these animals migrated across a Bearing Sea land bridge into Asia (0.9 million BP). Just as humans migrated east across a later the Bearing Sea land bridge during the Ice Age, horse appear to have migrated east into Asia. Native Americans came in contact with horses and many other large mammals, but did not domesticate them. Horses given the climatic conditions of Siberia and Alaska would have been unfamiliar to the original Ice Age settler of North America. The animals disappeared in the Americas (about 7,000 BC). Anthropolgists today debate why this occurred. It may have been over-hunting, but climatic conditions may also have been involved. It was on the Europeam Steppe that men a horse first came in cotact. The horse would have appeared first on the Asian Steppe, but spread very rapidly to the European Steppe. (We know this because of the speed with which feral horses escapring from the Spanish spread out and colonized the American prarie during the 16th century.) We know a great deal about this encounter. Early man at first hunted horses for meat. Escavations of paleolithic sites in Eurasia show that horses were butchered for meat. The extent of hoese bones suggest that they were an important source of meat. But something was different about the horse. The speed and spirit of the horse was unlike any other animal. They fired the imagintion of the nomadic people who encountered them. [Lobell and Powell, pp. 28-29.] This can easily be seen because no other animal appears so extensively in cave art. There were different horse species. As in the Americas, almost all of these species disappeared, especially the forrest species. Climate and habitat issues may have been involved. But on the Steppe, the modern horse flourished (Equus cabulus). And this is where human migrating out of Africa encounted them. By this time, man had already domesticated livestock (cattle and sheep). The step of domesticating horses was a natural step to a people already herding livestock. And the horse besides it innate appeal had real advantages did not develop in the Middle East. It was habituated to the Steppe, meaning it could survive by itself through winters while cattle and sheep had to be fed whichmeant work. As one archaeologist explains, "Horses are easier to feed through harsh inters thn sheep or cattle. they are well adapted to winter on the steppe, and can break through ice and snow with their hooves to reach winter grss to feed themselves." [Anthony] Bone carvings suggest that the ealy Srepe people kept hrses and cattle together, perhaps for this reason. Man begn domesticating horses on the European Steppe, in the Ukraine and southern Russia (about 5,000 BC). [Lobell and Powell, p.29.] Other sources suggest about 6,000 BC. The horse proved useful as a pack animal, but reserchers believe that from a very early point, men began riding them. There is strong evidence of riding behavior (3,500 BC). And chariots first appeared (about 2000 BC. With the invention of the chariot it became a major element in warfare. The invention of the stirup by the Scynthians made it an even more potent military weapon, allowing warriors to effectively yield weapons from a horse.

The Neolithic Agricultural Revolution

The dawn of civilization has come to be labeled the Neolithic Revolution. Stone-age nomads began to settle down in river valleys. They began developed agriculture and domesticate animals. With these developments came stunning advances in technology, especially in meterlurgy and writing. The Neolithic Revolution occurred first in river valleys because conditions there were the most condusive for agriculture. The Neolithic Revolution first occurred along the Tigris-Euphrates in Mesopotamia. There civilization evolved over millenia. Civilization occurred later along the Nile and Indus, but in a much shorter time frame. Archeolgists believe that this was becuse both these peoples could draw on the technology develoed in the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers. The Indus Valley civilization is the least understood of the four original civilization centers. Civilization in China, unlike the other three river valley civilizations appears to have developed in isolation. Some archeologists believe that there were other smaller river valley civilizations which because of their smaller size were overwealmed.

The Great River Valley Civilizations

We have collected some information on the history and clothing technology of several important early civilaztion. The first major civilizations arose along fertile river vallies which supported the first major agriculture systems. Conditions in river vallies profuced extrodinary yields even with primative technology. Agriculture would take longer to develop in areas where agriculture was dependant on rainfall. Thus the first true civilizations appeared in river valleys. Actual information on boys' clothing is extremely limited, but we will add what ever information becomes available. For the first time in history we know a great deal about these people because they invented writing and left a fascinating written record of their civilitaions. Writing was developed here because records were needed to account for the wealth created by productive agriculture. The first true civilization was Mesopotamia which appears to have influenced both Egypt and abchient India. China appears to have developed independently of the other three great river valley civilizations.

Lure of Plunder

Thanks to agriculture, the great river valley civilizations and other ancient civilizations using technonology to fam areas beyond the river valleys amazed great wealth. These settled societies were able each year to expand their wealth this included the acquisition of metal (precious and base), jewels as well as large quantities of livestock and rich textiles. These were all things that the people of the steppe coveted, but could not produce in quantity. Nomadic tribes subsisted on their heards of and had to continually move them. The grasslands were vast, but in many areas relatively arid and thus could not support continual grazing by a large heard. There were also seasonal factors in the availability of pasturage. Their nomadic livestyle was not nearly as productive as settled agriculture. Not only did they not profucecgreat wealth, but their nomadic livestyle meant they could not carry about largequantities of goods. Tghis mean that the wealth of settled socities became a tempting target for the nomadic and relatively poor steppe people. This dynamic has operated sice the dawn of civilization. All the people on the perifery of the steppe were affected, especially China because of the proximity to the steppe. It was the reason forthe Great Wall, the greatest building project in history. But when China was strong, the steppe people were forced to the west affecting the history of the Middle East and Europe. And because they had to continually move, the steppe people could not acquire to pasturage over vast steppes are the natural enemies of fixed communities who lead sedentary lives based on agriculture. Nomads own only what they can carry while agriculturalists accumulate surpluses which become tempting booty for nomad raiders. This basic truism has been the most important factor in the history of China, of Russia and of the Central Asian Countries

Civilized and Barabrian Balance of Power

When admiring the startling achievements of the great river valley civilizations, one can't help but wondering how rude, numerically inferior babarians could have threatened these great civilizations. A range of factors suggest that these civilzations should have been militarily dominant. Large populations, superior organizations, wealth, advanzed thechnology, and other factors would seem to havecaquitted the great civilizations the capability to withsand barbarian onsloughts. The problem was that the river valley civilizations were no homogenious polities. The ruling class were often a narrow strata of society if not an alien group which often oppresively treated the peasant farmers who were the primary source of wealth creation. Thus rulers were often afraid to arm the peasantry and thus take advantage of their numerical superority. The ballance of power was mintained during the Bronze Age because of the high cost of bronze weapons. The arristocratic warrior class of the civilized societies were roughly equivalent to the barbarian armies. The technology of bronze metelurgy was not beyond the ability of avanced barbarian societies which often had greater access to metal ores than the river valley civilizations. Thus the Hittites, Hurrians, Kassites, and others pressed in on Babylon and Egypt with varying success over time, but none were sufficentlt strong to completely overcome the other. This only changed with the develop of marine commerce which reduced the flow of wealth over the Silk Road. And finally the evention of modern weaponry (cannons and muskets) overcame the military power of mounted archers.

Steppe Tribes

One particularly important question in history is the role of the Steppe people set between the West and China. The lifestyle of the Steppe given the vast grasslands was nomadic herding. Grassland is ideal for herding, but the low-precipitantion levels required nomadism so to avoid overgrazing. The vastness of the Steppe allowed he various tribes to acquire and maintain as many animals as they could effectively manage. TheSteppe people herded various animals, including sheep, goats, and cattle. The most important animal for the Steppe tribes, beyond any doubt, was the horse. The horse was developed on the Steppe. It had uses for transportation, food, and warfare. It was the Steppe tribes that domesticated horse. The horse transfored warfar, although it was a millenia bedore the full potentil of the horse was realized and the uses of the horse defused throughout Eurasia.

People of the European Steppe

The first major developments in the steppe occured on the European steppe. It was here that the horse was domesticated. This provided the basis of the economy on which the steppe people developed. They were, however, not at first a major challenge to the major setteled civilixation. They were more like the Plains Indians in North America, a generally minor irritant. This changed with the Scynthian invention of the stirup. This enabled the steppe people to handel weapons on horse back, creating a formidable military challenge to settled socities. Greek (Alexander and his successors) and Roman historians mentioned several different nomadic people that presented a military challenge. Some of the most important we the the Cimerians, Scythians (Saka) and Sarmatians. They inhabited the area north and arund the Black and Caspian Seas. These peoples spoke indo-European languages. The Scynthians/Sakas are the people who managed to stopped Alexander northeast march. The Greek phanlank was to rigid and slow to meet the challenge of a mounted army with out urban centers to assault. Alexander thus turned southeast and invaded India and the realm of King Phorous.

People of the Asian Steppe

Struggle for the Silk Road

The key to the Steppe and ariving force in history was the Silk Road. This was a source of immense wealth until the European maritime outreach espablished a direct seaborn trade with the East. The Western and Eastern empires and the Steppe tribes struggled for control of the Silk Road abdthe weakth to be derived from it. The Chinese T'ang Dyynasty established Protectorates in Central Asia (what is now northern India, Afghanistan, Uzbeckistan, reaching to the borders of the Islamic Caliphate (8th century AD). This set up a conflict between the T'ang and the Caliphate. The issues was settled by one of the major battles of history, perhaps th most important of the kesser known battles--the Battle of the Talas River (751). This began the decline of the T'ang Dynasty and was a factor in the spread of Islam into Central Asia.


Anthony, David W. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (Princeton University Press).

Lobell, Jarrett A. and Eric A. Powell. "The story of the horse: How its unique role in human culture transformed history," Archaeology (July/August 2015), pp. 28-33.


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Created: 3:49 AM 4/22/2009
Last updated: 2:32 AM 6/2/2014