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 further south. 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) and the Sredny Stog culture (~4000 bc) represented an eastern PIE dialect, ancestral to the Indo-Iranian and possibly the Tokharian and Hittite languages as well.

The Ukrainian cultures expanded eastward and are represented by the Botai horse culture (~3700 bc), speaking a dialect we might call far-eastern PIE, while the Stedny Stog culture would continue to evolve into the proto-Indo-Iranian dialect. These proto-Indo-Iranians would also move eastward and develop the extensive Yamna culture (~3600). The Yamna culture would absorb much of the far-eastern PIE and proto-Uralic people as well as drive others even further east.

Of the far-eastern PIE people, one group, already located north of the Caucasus, developed the Maykop culture (~3700 bc), which thrived as an intermediary between the Indo-Iranians of the steppes and the 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 Andronovo culture (~2300 bc) in Kazakhstan and further east, the Sintashta culture (~2100 bc) in the Volga valley, followed by the Srubna culture (~1800 bc) coverning both the Ukraine and the Volga valley.

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.

Beginning around 1500 bc, some of the Indo-Iranian tribes moved from Scythia into Afghanistan, the Swat valley, and northwestern India. A second wave - Medes, Persians, and Parthians entered into Iran through Bactria circa 1000 bc. Both would absorb (and be absorbed by) the original populations and develop the rich mixed cultures of Iran and the Indian subcontinent.

By 1000 bc, the Indo-Iranian tribes have taken control of most of the western and central steppes, from the Ukraine to the Volga to Khazakstan and southern Siberia. By 600 bc, Greeks would begin to refer to the area as Scythia, and to the people as Scyths. As the Scyths extended back into Europe as well as into Xinjiang, they differentiated into extended tribes such as the Cimmerians in the west and the Sakas in the east. By the last centuries bc, the Scyths and their relations would be driven out of the steppes 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