History of the Steppe



The Steppe (aka the Eurasian Steppe) is a vast strip of land stretching from Ukraine to Mongolia. The term "steppe" denotes grassland: a low-precipitation region with enough rain for grass, but not enough for trees (see Climates and Biomes). The rolling plains of the Steppe are occasionally pierced by mountains; the most serious of these interruptions divides the region into the western Steppe (which lies mainly in Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan) and eastern Steppe (which lies chiefly in Mongolia and China). The eastern Steppe is drier and colder than its western counterpart; consequently, Steppe peoples historically tended to migrate westward.1

Region of the Eurasian Steppe

Eurasia can be divided into a number of standard major regions. The Steppe overlaps with four of these regions: Europe, Siberia, Central Asia, and East Asia.

Major Regions of the Inhabited World

Siberia (the Asian part of Russia) is a frigid land covered mainly in softwood forest, with tundra in the far north; prior to the Russian expansion, this region was populated by small nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers and reindeer herders.3 Compared with Siberia, the Steppe is mild and fertile, allowing much larger tribes to flourish there. Indeed, the Steppe gave rise to the largest nomadic tribes the world has ever seen.

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Traditional Steppe Life

The traditional lifestyle of the Steppe is nomadic herding. Grassland is ideal for such a lifestyle, as it provides a regenerating food supply for grazing animals. The vastness of the Steppe allowed tribes to maintain as many animals as they could manage, including sheep, goats, and cattle. On the other hand, the nomadic lifestyle of these tribes prevented civilization (urban life) from ever developing in the Steppe region (prior to the modern age).1

The most important animal for Steppe life was the horse, used for both transportation and combat. Indeed, it was the Steppe tribes that achieved the domestication of the horse, as well as the innovation of riding horseback. These advances diffused from the Steppe across the Old World.1

Prior to the age of gunpowder, cavalry was the world's supreme land-based military unit. The Steppe tribes thus held a great military advantage over settled cultures, in that they could easily maintain great herds of horses; settled peoples, on the other hand, were forced to incur the major expense of feeding horses with farmed grain. Until the development of advanced gunpowder weapons, raids by Steppe tribes were a constant and serious danger to settlements across much of Eurasia.1

The primary form of traditional social organization on the Steppe is the tribe. When great numbers were needed, however (e.g. for raiding or empire-building), tribes often joined together in confederations. Tribal loyalties remained paramount, however, such that Steppe confederations were prone to civil war.1

Indo-European Expansion

Due to its military campaigns against neighbouring regions, the Steppe had a monumental impact on Eurasian history. The first of these campaigns was the great Indo-European expansion of ca. 2000-1000 BC.

One or two millennia prior to this expansion, the Indo-European language emerged in the western Steppe (see Indo-European Languages). Over time, Indo-European fractured into various new, descendant languages. Then, during the period ca. 2000-1000 BC, armies of chariot-riding Indo-Europeans swept across Europe and Asia, conquering and settling vast regions.

Indo-European Expansion


The history of cavalry began ca. 3000 BC, with the invention of the chariot (in Mesopotamia). For the first millennium of their existence, however, chariots were drawn by oxen, which made them relatively slow. Warfare was not dramatically altered by chariots until ca. 2000 BC, when oxen were replaced by horses.4

Development of Cavalry
ca. 3000-2000 BC ca. 2000-1000 BC ca. 1000 BC-
oxen-drawn chariots horse-drawn chariots
mounted warriors

The exploitation of horse-drawn chariots by the Indo-Europeans enabled their great expansion. Most of the lands they invaded had not yet adopted chariots, and were thus easily overrun. Having conquered these lands, the Indo-European invaders adopted settled life and proceeded to build civilizations (e.g. Mycenaean, Persian, Indian).1

Not until ca. 1000 BC, however, did powerful states emerge on the Steppe itself. This became possible with the development of mounted combat, especially mounted archery. Mounted combat was innovated ca. 1000 BC, by peoples of the western Steppe; over the following centuries, it diffused to the eastern Steppe and across Eurasia. The agility of mounted warriors made them far superior to chariots in the battlefield.1

Steppe Empires

Timeline of the Steppe
ancient Steppe
1000 BC-500 AD
medieval Steppe
1 3 4
1 ancient western states (especially the Scythians > Sarmatians > Huns)
2 ancient eastern states (especially the Xiongnu)
3 Turkic states
4 Mongol Empire
Summary of Steppe History
ancient Steppe empires
ca. 1000 BC-500 AD
various states emerge to dominate the western and eastern Steppe
age of Turkic empires
ca. 500-1200
the Steppe is ruled by a patchwork of Turkic states
Mongol Empire
ca. 1200-1300
the Steppe is ruled by the vast Mongol Empire
ca. 1300-
the splinter states of the Mongol Empire decline

The age of Steppe empires can be divided into three periods.

First were the ancient Steppe empires, which lie in the period ca. 1000 BC-500 AD. In the western Steppe, most of this period was dominated by two Iranian peoples (i.e. peoples who spoke Iranian languages): first the Scythians, then the Sarmatians. The ancient period concluded with the brief Hunnic Empire (ca. 400-50), whose language is unknown.1,5

In the eastern Steppe, the rise of nomadic empires was delayed, given the centuries required for mounted combat skills to reach this area. First and mightiest of the ancient eastern peoples were the Xiongnu, who ruled a vast empire for several centuries. Xiongnu raids compelled China to begin construction of the Great Wall.1

The Steppe peoples readily absorbed the culture of their civilized neighbours. Thus, the culture of the western Steppe came to be strongly Persian-influenced (and later Islamic-influenced), while the culture of the eastern Steppe came to be strongly Chinese-influenced.1

Peak Territory of the Iranian Steppe Empires
Peak Territory of the Hunnic Empire
Peak Territory of the Xiongnu Empire

During the Turkic age (ca. 500-1200), the Steppe was dominated by various large Turkic states. This marks the rise of the Turkic people (who had long inhabited the Steppe) as a major historical force. The Turkic age also witnessed large-scale Turkic invasions of neighbouring regions, including Central Asia and Eastern Europe.1

The Turkic age was followed by the Mongol Empire (ca. 1200-1300), the largest contiguous empire in history (and second-largest overall, after the British Empire). The Mongol Empire encompassed the entire Steppe and vast adjacent regions. Late in the Empire's history, China was conquered; the Mongol emperor moved his capital to China, and took on the additional role of Chinese emperor. The period during which Mongols ruled China is known as the Yuan dynasty (or Mongol dynasty).1

Mongol Empire

The Mongols were native inhabitants of the eastern Steppe. The rapid expansion of their empire drove the Turks permanently out of the eastern Steppe, such that it became chiefly populated by Mongols. The western Steppe, however, remained chiefly populated by Turkic tribes (even though it fell under Mongol control).2

The Mongol Empire fractured into splinter states ca. 1300. Although the region of Mongolia and China continued to be ruled by the Yuan dynasty, it was overthrown in less than a century, and native Chinese rule was restored to China. The sphere of Mongol rule thus contracted to Mongolia.

The events described above are reflected in a present-day linguistic map of Asia.

Present-day Countries with Majority Turkic- or Mongolian-speaking Populations

The Mongol Empire represents the pinnacle of Steppe power. While Steppe tribes remained formidable enemies of neighbouring civilizations for centuries to come, their power had fallen into permanent decline. Ultimately, the rise of the modern, gun-wielding army brought the age of the nomadic mounted warrior to an end.

1 - "Steppe", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
2 - "Turkic peoples", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
3 - "Siberia", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
4 - "Chariot", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
5 - "History of Central Asia", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.