Prehistory of the Steppes

Physical map of central Asian steppes

The original people of the western and central steppes were likely Proto-Uralic (the ancestors to Finnish, Hungarian, Samoyede, etc.). They would include the neolithic Samara culture of the Volga valley, as well as the fishing communities of the Kelteminar culture near the Aral Sea. These would evolve into the Pit-Comb culture beginning around 4200 bc, which would extend all the way to Scandinavia and both sides of the Ural mountains, including the Khvalynsk copper culture of the Volga valley.

At around this same time period, proto-Indo-Europeans (PIE) were expanding from the Balkans into the Ukraine. The Dnieper-Donets culture (~5000 bc, central and western Ukraine) and the Sredny Stog culture (~4000 bc, south-central Ukraine) represented an eastern PIE dialect, ancestral to the Indo-Iranian and possibly the Tokharian and Hittite languages as well.

Note: Most linguists follow Marija Gimbates' Kurgan theory. A smaller group follow Colin Renfrew's Anatolian theory. I am admittedly only an amateur, but I prefer Diakonov's Balkan theory, which is also a part of Renfrew's extended theory

The Botai culture (~3700 bc, north-central Kazakhstan) was perhaps the first to domesticate the horse. They may have spoken an early Uralic dialect.

The Stedny Stog culture would continue to develop the proto-Indo-Iranian dialect. These proto-Indo-Iranians would over time move eastward and be at least partially responsible for the development of the extensive Yamna culture (~3600). The Yamna culture would absorb much of the earlier eastern PIE and proto-Uralic people, as well as drive others even further east. It may have remained linguistically diverse for many centuries

Of the eastern PIE people, one group, already by this time located along the Kuba river valley north of the Caucasus, developed the Maykop culture (~3700 bc), which thrived as an intermediary between the Indo-Iranians of the steppes and the more advanced civilizations south of the Caucasus. I believe that they would eventually move into Anatolia to become the Hittites and their relations. Another group moved north and east where, by 3300 bc, they would form the Afanasevo culture of the Tokharians.

In the following millenium, we see several bronze age cultures develop in the area: the Catacomb culture (~2800 bc) in the Ukraine; the Poltavka culture (~2700 bc) in the Volga valley; and, north of the Poltavka culture, the Abashevo culture (~2500 bc), which may have been at least in part Finno-Ugric.

Next, we see the Sintashta culture (~2100 bc, north of Kazakhstan, at the southern end of the Ural Mountains) - which introduced the chariot - and the broader Andronovo culture (~2000 bc) in what is now Kazakhstan.

After the Sintashta and Andronovo, we find the Srubna culture (~1800 bc) which ranged from Ukraine to the Ural mountains, with the Andronovo continuing to the east. This culture may have included the Cimmerians, who would be pushed back into eastern Europe by the Indo-Iranian Scyths and, eventually, invade Anatolia.

The famous Tarim Basin mummies (Xinjiang, in western China) - presumed to be Tokharian - are from this time period as well, the earliest dating to 1800 bc. By the final centuries bc, the Yuezhi - likely Tokharians - would be displaced by the Turkish Xiongnu, the beginnings of the westward movement of Turkish tribes that would eventually lead them to Anatolia and domination of central Asia, while the Indo-Europeans of the steppes moved towards and into southern Asia.

The Bactrian-Margiana archeological complex, which thrived from 2300 to 1700 aec, was a culture of sedentary farmers living in fortified villages in the area between what is now Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. Their culture was related more to the cultures to the south than to the cultures of the steppes to their north, and they may have been of Dravidian stock.

It is possible that the Indo-Iranians raided the farmers of the area over centuries, eventually becoming a dominating group while adopting the farmers' culture (similar to the way that China succumbed to the "barbarians" from the steppes to the west).

From the Bactria-Margiana area, a portion of the Indo-Iranians would eventually (circa 1500 bc) enter the area that is now Syria as the Mittani, a ruling class among the Hurrians. Soon after, other Indo-Iranians would travel from Bactria through the mountain passes into the Swat Valley and beyond, where they would become the ruling class in most of northern India.

The Iranians of the steppes would, in the final millennium bc, expand in many directions: They would move back into eastern Europe as the Scyths and Sarmatians. They would move east to Xinjiang as the Sakas. And they would move into the Iranian plateau where they would become the Persians, Parthians, and Medes.

By the last centuries bc, the Scyths and their relations would be driven out of the steppes or absorbed by the Turks, resulting in a spit between the Asian Indo-Europeans and the European Indo-Europeans that persists to the present.

Scythia, circa 100 BC

© 2013, C. George Boeree