Bronze Age Herders of the Eurasian Steppes

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The Eurasian steppe is a sea of varied grasslands extending from Mongolia to the mouth of the Danube, an east-west distance of about 7,000 kilometers. No surviving inscriptions describe the Bronze Age cultures of the steppe—they are entirely prehistoric. For that reason, they are much less well known than their descendants of the Iron Age, such as the Scythians. Unfortunately, the Bronze Age cultures tend to be seen through the lens of these later horse nomads and their historical cousins—Mongols, Turks, Huns, and others. In fact, horse nomadism of the classic Eurasian steppe type appeared after about 1000 b.c. Before 1000 b.c. the steppe was occupied by quite different kinds of cultures, not at all like the Scythians. It was in the Bronze Age that people first really domesticated the steppe—learned to profit from it. Wagons, wool sheep, and perhaps horseback riding appeared in the steppe at the beginning of the Bronze Age. Chariots and large-scale copper mining arose in the Late Bronze Age. These innovations revolutionized steppe economies, which led to the extension of a single, broadly similar steppe civilization from eastern Europe to the borders of China. Indo-European languages might well have spread through this new community of steppe cultures.


The steppe Bronze Age was defined by Soviet archaeologists, who did not look to western Europe for guidance. Instead, they matched the chronological phases of the Russian and Ukrainian steppes with those of the Caucasus Mountains—part of both the Czarist Russian empire and the Soviet Union. The Bronze Age chronology of the Caucasus, in turn, is linked to that of Anatolia, in modern Turkey. As a result, the steppe regions of the former Soviet Union have a Bronze Age chronology that is entirely different from that just to the west in Poland or southeastern Europe, where the western European chronological system defined by Paul Reinecke was used.

The Early Bronze Age of the steppes began about 3300 b.c., perhaps a thousand years earlier than the Early Bronze Age of Poland and southeastern Europe but about the same time as the Early Bronze Age of Anatolia. This might seem a trivial matter, but it has hindered communication between western and Russian-Ukrainian archaeologists who study the Bronze Age. In addition, some influential Soviet and post-Soviet archaeologists were slow to accept the validity of radiocarbon dating, so competing radiocarbon-based and typology-based chronologies have confused outsiders.

Finally, the Bronze Age of the steppe covers such an enormous area that it is impossible to define one chronology that applies to the entire region. In fact, there was a significant cultural frontier in the Volga-Ural region that separated the western steppes, west of the Ural Mountains, from the eastern, or Asian, steppes until the end of the Middle Bronze Age, as defined in the western sequence. In the steppes of northern Kazakhstan, just east of this Ural frontier, the sequence jumps from a local Eneolithic to a brief and poorly defined Early Bronze Age (strongly influenced by the western Middle Bonze Age), followed by the Late Bronze
Age. It is only in the Late Bronze Age that the eastern and western steppes share the same broad chronological periods.

The sequence of Bronze Age cultures in the western steppes was established in 1901–1907, when Vasily A. Gorodtsov excavated 107 burial mounds, or kurgans, containing 299 graves in the Izyum region of the northern Donets River Valley, near Kharkov in the Ukrainian steppes. In 1907 he published an account in which he observed that three basic types of graves were found repeatedly, stratified one above the other: the oldest graves in the kurgans were of a type he called pit graves, followed by catacomb graves and then by timber graves. These grave types are now recognized as the backbone of the Bronze Age chronology for the western steppes. The absolute dates given to them here are maximal dates, the earliest and latest expressions. The Pit Grave, or Yamnaya, culture, for example, began in 3300 b.c. and persisted in the steppes northwest of the Black Sea until about 2300 b.c.. (Early Bronze Age). It was replaced by the Catacomb culture in the steppes east of the Dnieper Valley hundreds of years earlier, around 2700 or even 2800 b.c. Catacomb sites lasted until 1900 b.c. (Middle Bronze Age). The Timber Grave, or Srubnaya, culture came to prominence about 1900 b.c. and ended about 1200 b.c. (Late Bronze Age).


The period 4000–3500 b.c. witnessed the appearance of new kinds of wealth in the steppes north of the Black Sea (the North Pontic region) and, simultaneously, the fragmentation of societies in the Danube Valley and eastern Carpathians (the Tripolye culture) that had been the region's centers of population and economic productivity. Rich graves (the Karanovo VI culture) appeared in the steppe grasslands from the mouth of the Danube (as at Suvorovo, north of the Danube delta in Romania) to the Azov steppes (as at Novodanilovka, north of Mariupol in Ukraine). These exceptional graves contained flint blades up to 20 centimeters long, polished flint axes, lanceolate flint points, copper and shell beads, copper spiral rings and bracelets, a few small gold ornaments, and (at Suvorovo) a polished stone mace-head shaped like a horse's head. The percentage of horse bones doubled in steppe settlements of this period, about 4000–3000 b.c., at Dereivka and Sredny Stog II.

It is possible that horseback riding began at about this time. Early in this period, perhaps setting in motion economic and military innovations that threatened the economic basis of agricultural villages. Most Tripolye B1–B2 towns, dated about 4000–3800 b.c., were fortified. In the Lower Danube Valley, previously a densely settled and materially rich region, six hundred tell settlements were abandoned, and a simpler material culture (typified by the sites Cernavoda and Renie) became widespread in the smaller, dispersed communities that followed. Copper mining and metallurgy declined sharply in the Balkans. Later, in the Southern Bug Valley, the easternmost Tripolye people concentrated into a few very large towns, such as Maidanets'ke, arguably for defensive reasons. The largest were 300–400 hectares in area, with fifteen hundred buildings arranged in concentric circles around a large central plaza or green.

These enormous towns were occupied from about 3800 to 3500 b.c., during the Tripolye C1 period, and then were abandoned. Most of the eastern Tripolye population dispersed into smaller, more mobile residential units. Only a few clusters of towns in the Dniester Valley retained the old Tripolye customs of large houses, fine painted pottery, and female figurines after 3500 b.c. This sequence of events, still very poorly understood, spelled the end of the rich Copper Age cultures of Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria, termed "Old Europe" by Marija Gimbutas. The steppe cultures of the western North Pontic region became richer, but it is difficult to say whether they raided the Danube Valley and Tripolye towns or just observed and profited from an internal crisis brought on by soil degradation and climate change. In either case, by 3500 b.c. the cultures of the North Pontic steppes no longer had access to Balkan copper and other prestige commodities that once had been traded into the steppes from "Old Europe."

After about 3500 b.c. the North Pontic steppe cultures were drawn into a new set of relationships with truly royal figures who appeared in the northern Caucasus. Such villages as Svobodnoe had existed since about 4300 b.c. in the northern Caucasian piedmont uplands, supported by pig and cattle herding and small-scale agriculture. About 3500–3300 b.c. the people of the Kuban forest-steppe region began to erect a series of spectacularly rich kurgan graves. Huge kurgans were built over stonelined grave chambers containing fabulous gifts. Among the items were huge cauldrons (up to 70 liters) made of arsenical bronze, vases of sheet gold and silver decorated with scenes of animal processions and a goat mounting a tree of life, silver rods with cast silver and gold bull figurines, arsenical bronze axes and daggers, and hundreds of ornaments of gold, turquoise, and carnelian.

The kurgan built over the chieftain's grave at the type site of the Maikop culture was 11 meters high; it and the stone grave chamber would have taken five hundred men almost six weeks to build. Maikop settlements, such as Meshoko and Galugai, remained small and quite ordinary, without metal finds, public buildings, or storehouses, so we do not know where the new chiefs kept their wealth during life. The ceramic inventory, however, is similar in the rich graves and the settlements—pots from the Maikop chieftain's grave look like those from Meshoko.

Some early stage Maikop metal tools have analogies at Sialk III in northwestern Iran, and others resemble those from Arslantepe VI in southeastern Anatolia, sites of the same period. A minority of Maikop metal artifacts were made with a high-nickel-content arsenical bronze, like the formula used in Anatolia and Mesopotamia and unlike the normal Caucasian metal type of this era. Certain early Maikop ceramic vessels were wheel-thrown, a technology known in Anatolia and Iran but previously unknown in the northern Caucasus. The inspiration for the sheet-silver vessel decorated with a goat mounting a tree of life must have been in late-stage Uruk Mesopotamia, where the first cities in the world were at that time consuming trade commodities and sending out merchants and ambassadors. The appearance of a very rich elite in the northern Caucasus probably was an indirect result of this stimulation of interregional trade emanating from Mesopotamia.

Wool sheep had been bred first in Mesopotamia in about 4000 b.c. The earliest woolen textiles known north of the Caucasus were found in a rich Maikop grave at Novosvobodnaya, dating perhaps to 2800 b.c. Wool could shed rainwater and take dyes much better than any plant-fiber textile. Portable felt tents and felt boots, standard pieces of nomad gear in later centuries, became possible at this time. Wagons also might have been invented in Mesopotamia. Wagons with solid wooden wheels began to appear at scattered sites across southeastern Europe after the Maikop culture emerged in the northern Caucasus. The evidence for the adoption of wagons can be seen at about 3300 b.c. in southern Poland (as evidenced by an incised image of a four-wheeled wagon on a pot of the Funnel Beaker culture), 3300–3000 b.c. in Hungary (seen in small clay wagon models in Baden culture graves with ox teams), and 3000 b.c. in the North Pontic steppes (as indicated by actual burials of disassembled wagons with solid wheels in or above human graves). We do not know with certainty that wool sheep and wagons both came into the steppes through the Maikop culture, but other southern influences certainly are apparent at Maikop, and the timing is right. Numerous Maikop-type graves under kurgans have been found in the steppes north of the northern Caucasian piedmont, and isolated Maikop-type artifacts have been discovered in scattered local graves across the North Pontic region.


The Yamnaya culture arose in the North Pontic steppes about when the earliest Maikop mounds were built—3300 b.c., more or less. According to the classic 1979 study of Nikolai Merpert, the Yamnaya began in the steppes of the lower Volga, northwest of the Caspian Sea, and the funeral customs that define the Yamnaya phenomenon then spread westward to the Danube. Merpert also divided Yamnaya into nine regional variants, however, and the relationships between them have become increasingly unclear since 1979. The oldest Yamnaya pottery types defined by Merpert, egg-shaped shell-tempered pots with cord and comb–impressed decoration, clearly evolved from the late-stage Khvalynsk and Repin ceramic types found in the Volga and Don steppes in the earlier fourth millennium b.c. Pots such as these also are found in some Yamnaya graves farther west in Ukraine. Most Yamnaya graves in Ukraine, however, contained a variety of local pottery types, and some of them could be older than those on the Volga. Yamnaya was not really a single culture with a single origin—Merpert used the phrase "economic-historical community" to describe it.

The essential defining trait of the Yamnaya horizon, as we should call it, was a strongly pastoral economy and a mobile residential pattern, combined with the creation of very visible cemeteries of raised kurgans. Kurgan cemeteries sprang up across the steppes from the Danube to the Ural River. Settlements disappeared in many areas, particularly in the east, the Don-Volga-Ural steppes. This was a broad economic shift, not the spread of a single culture. A change to a drier, colder climate might have accelerated the shift—climatologists date the Atlantic/Subboreal transition to about 3300–3000 b.c.

A more mobile residence pattern would have been encouraged by the appearance of wagons, felt tents, and woolen clothes. Wool made it easier to live in the open steppe, away from the protected river valleys. Wagons were a critically important innovation, because they permitted a herder to carry enough food, shelter, and water to remain with his herd far from the sheltered river valleys. Herds could be dispersed over much larger areas, which meant that larger herds could be owned and real wealth could be accumulated in livestock. It is no accident that metallurgy picked up at about the same time—herders now had something to trade.

Wagons acquired such importance that they were disassembled and buried with certain individuals; about two hundred wagon graves are known in the North Pontic steppes for the Early Bronze Age and Middle Bronze Age combined. The wagons, the oldest preserved anywhere in the world, were narrow-bodied and heavy, with solid wheels that turned on a fixed axle. Pulled laboriously by oxen, they were not racing vehicles. Yamnaya herders probably rode horses; characteristic wear made by a bit has been found on the premolars of horse teeth from this period in a neighboring culture in Kazakhstan (the Botai culture), where there are settlements with large numbers of horse bones. Horseback riding greatly increased the efficiency of herding, particularly cattle herding.

A few western Yamnaya settlements are known in Ukraine. At one of them, Mikhailovka level II, 60 percent of the animal bones were from cattle. A study of animal sacrifices in the eastern Yamnaya region (the Don-Volga-Ural steppes), however, found that among fifty-three graves with such animal bones, sheep occurred in 65 percent, cattle in only 15 percent, and horses in 7.5 percent of the graves. The seeds of wheat and millet have been found in the clay of some Yamnaya pots in the lower Dnieper steppes (Belyaevka kurgan 1 and Glubokoe kurgan 2), so some agriculture might have been practiced in the steppe river valleys of Ukraine.

Local sandstone copper ores were exploited in two apparent centers of metallurgic activity: the lower Dnieper and the middle Volga. Some exceptionally rich graves are located near the city of Samara on the Volga, at the northern edge of the steppe zone. One, the Yamnaya grave at Kutuluk, contained a sword-length pure copper club or mace weighing 1.5 kilograms, and another, a Yamnaya-Poltavka grave nearby at Utyevka, contained a copper dagger, a shaft-hole axe, a flat axe, an L-headed pin, and two gold rings with granulated decoration. Dozens of tanged daggers are known from Yamnaya graves. A few objects made of iron are present in later Yamnaya graves (knife blades and the head of a copper pin at Utyevka), perhaps the earliest iron artifacts anywhere.

The basic funeral ritual of burial in a sub-rectangular pit under a kurgan, usually on the back with the knees raised (or on the side in Ukraine) and the head pointed east-northeast, was adopted widely, but only a few persons were recognized in this way. We do not know where or how most ordinary people were handled after death. In the Ukraine, carved stone stelae have been found in about three hundred Yamnaya kurgans. It is thought that they were carved and used for some other ritual originally, perhaps an earlier phase in the funeral, and then were reused as covering stones over grave pits.

Beginning in about 3000 b.c. rich cultures emerged in the coastal steppes of the Crimea (the Kemi Oba culture) and the Dniester estuary northwest of the Black Sea (the Usatovo culture). They might have participated in seaborne trade along the Black Sea coast—artifact exchanges show that Usatovo, Kemi Oba, and late stages of the Maikop cultures were contemporary. Perhaps their trade goods even reached Troy I. A stone stela much like a Yamnaya marker was built into a wall at Troy I, and the Troy I ceramics were very much like those of the Baden and Ezero cultures in southeastern Europe.

The Early Bronze Age settlement and cemetery at Usatovo, on a shallow coastal bay near the mouth of the Dniester, is the defining site for the Usatovo culture. Two separate groups of large kurgans were surrounded by standing stone curbs and stelae, occasionally carved with images of horses. In the central graves of kurgan cemetery 1 adult men were buried with riveted arsenical copper daggers and beautifully painted pots of the final-stage Tripolye C2 type, probably made for Usatovo chiefs in the last Tripolye towns on the upper Dniester. A few glass beads have been uncovered in Usatovo graves, and some Usatovo riveted daggers look like Aegean or Anatolian daggers of the same period; these objects suggest contacts with the south.

Between about 3000 and 2700 b.c., Yamnaya groups moved through the coastal steppes and migrated into the Lower Danube Valley (especially into northern Bulgaria) and eastern Hungary, where hundreds of Yamnaya kurgans are known. This migration carried steppe populations into the Balkans and the eastern Hungarian Plain, where they interacted with the Cotsofeni and late Baden cultures. The graves that testify to the movement were clearly Yamnaya and represented an intrusive new custom in southeastern Europe—some in Bulgaria even contained stelae, and one had a wagon burial, just as in the steppe Yamnaya graves—but the pottery in the graves was always local.

Because the Yamnaya tradition was not identified with a distinct pottery type, it is difficult to say how the Yamnaya immigrants were integrated into Balkan cultures. After the Yamnaya grave type was abandoned, which happened in Hungary before 2500 b.c., the archaeologically visible aspect of Yamnaya material culture disappeared. Nevertheless, some archaeologists see this Yamnaya migration as a social movement that carried Indo-European languages into southeastern Europe.


The Middle Bronze Age began at different times in different places. The earliest graves assigned to the Catacomb culture date to perhaps 2800–2700 b.c. and are located in the steppes north of the northern Caucasus, among societies of the Novotitorovskaya type that were in close contact with late Maikop culture, and in the Don Valley to the north. Along the Volga, graves containing Poltavka pottery appeared by 2800–2700 b.c. as well; Poltavka was very much like the earlier eastern Yamnaya culture, but with larger, more elaborately decorated, flat-based pots. By about 2600–2500 b.c. Catacomb traditions spread westward over the entire North Pontic region as far as the mouth of the Danube. Poltavka persisted through the Middle Bronze Age in the Volga-Ural region.

The Catacomb culture made sophisticated arsenical bronze weapons, tools, and ornaments, probably using Caucasian alloying recipes. Northward, on the Volga, the Poltavka culture continued to use its local "pure" copper sources, rather than the arsenical bronzes of the south. T-shaped pins of bone and copper, perhaps hairpins, were a common late Yamnaya-Catacomb type. Many metal shaft-hole axes and daggers were deposited in graves. The same kinds of ornate bronze pins and medallions are evident in the Middle Bronze Age royal kurgans of the northern Caucasus (Sachkere, Bedeni, and Tsnori) and the settlements of the Caspian Gate (Velikent) on the one hand and the Middle Bronze Age sites of the steppes on the other. These finds imply an active north-south system of Middle Bronze Age trade and intercommunication between the steppes and the Caucasus. Evgeni N. Chernykh, a specialist in metals and metallurgy, has speculated that up to half of the output of the Caucasian copper industry might have been consumed in the steppes to the north. Wagon burials continued in the Catacomb region for exceptional people. In the Ingul valley, west of the Dnieper, as well as in the steppes north of the Caucasus, some Catacomb graves contained skeletons with clay death masks applied to the skull.

Although the Middle Bronze Age remained a period of extreme mobility and few settlements, the number of settlement sites increased. A few small Middle Bronze Age occupation sites are known even on the Volga, a region devoid of Early Bronze Age settlements. A Catacomb culture wagon grave in the Azov steppes contained a charred pile of cultivated wheat grains, so some cultivation probably took place. The emphasis in the economy seems to have remained on pastoralism, however. Near Tsatsa in the Kalmyk steppes north of the North Caucasus, the skulls of forty horses were found sacrificed at the edge of one a man's grave (Tsatsa kurgan 1, grave 5, of the Catacomb culture). This find is exceptional—a single horse or a ram's head is more common—but it demonstrates the continuing ritual importance of herded animals.


At the end of the Middle Bronze Age, about 2200–2000 b.c., the innovations that would define the Late Bronze Age began to evolve in the northern steppes around the southern Urals. Perhaps increasing interaction between northern steppe herders and southern forest societies brought about this surge of creativity and wealth. Domesticated cattle and horses had begun to appear with some regularity at sites in the forest zone by about 2500–2300 b.c., with the appearance and spread of the Fatyanovo culture, a Russian forest-zone eastern extension of the Corded Ware horizon. Fatyanovorelated bronzeworking was adopted in the forest zone west of the Urals at about the same time. In the forest-steppe region, at the ecological boundary, the Abashevo culture emerged on the upper Don and middle Volga. The Abashevo culture displayed great skill in bronzework and was in contact with the late Poltavka peoples in the nearby steppes.

During the Middle Bronze Age some late Poltavka people from the Volga-Ural steppes drifted into the steppes east of the Ural Mountains, crossing the Ural frontier into what had been forager territory. About 2100–2200 b.c., these Poltavka groups began to mix with or emulate late Abashevo peoples, who had appeared in the southern Ural forest steppe. The mixture of Abashevo and Poltavka customs in the grassy hills west of the upper Tobol River created the visible traits of the Sintashta-Arkaim culture. It is more difficult to explain the explosion of extravagant ritual sacrifices and sudden building of large fortified settlements.

Sintashta-Arkaim sites are found in a compact region at the northern edge of the steppe, where the stony, gently rising hills are rich in copper ores. All of the streams in the Sintashta-Arkaim region flow into the upper Tobol on its west side. The known settlements of this culture were strongly fortified, with deep ditches dug outside high earth-and-timber walls; houses stood close together with their narrower ends against the wall. Before it was half destroyed by river erosion, Sintashta, probably contained the remains of sixty houses; Arkaim had about the same. Smelting copper from ore and other kinds of metallurgy occurred in every house in every excavated settlement.

Outside the settlements were kurgan cemeteries containing extraordinarily rich graves, accompanied by socketed spears, axes, daggers, flint points, whole horses, entire dogs, and the heads of cattle and sheep. Chariots were found on the floors of sixteen graves of the Sintashta-Arkaim culture, continuing the ritual of vehicle burial that had been practiced in the western steppes, but with a new kind of vehicle. Three chariot burials at Krivoe Ozero and Sintashta are directly dated. They were buried between about 2100 and 1900 b.c., which makes them the oldest chariots known anywhere in the world. There is some technical debate about whether these were true chariots: Were they too small, with a car just big enough for one person? Were the wheels too close together—1.1–1.5 meters across the axle—to keep the vehicle upright on a fast turn? Were the hubs too small to maintain the wheels in a vertical position?

These interesting questions should not obscure the importance of the technical advance in high-speed transport represented by the Sintashta-Arkaim chariots. They were light vehicles, framed with small-diameter wood but probably floored in leather or some other perishable material that left a dark stain, with two wheels of ten to twelve wooden spokes set in slots in the grave floor. They were pulled by a pair of horses controlled by a new, more severe kind of bit cheekpiece and driven by a man with weapons (axe, dagger, and spear).

The new chariot-driving cheekpiece design, an ovoid antler plate with interior spikes that pressed into the sides of the horses' lips, was invented in the steppes south of the Urals. It spread from there across Ukraine (through the Mnogovalikovaya culture, which evolved from late Catacomb culture) into southeastern Europe (the Glina III/Monteoru culture) and later into the Near East (graves at Gaza and Hazor). It is possible that chariotry diffused in the same way, from an origin in the steppes. Alternatively, perhaps chariots were invented in the Near East, as many researchers believe. The exact origin is unimportant. What is certain is that chariots spread very quickly, appearing in Anatolia at Karum Kanesh by about 1950–1850 b.c., so close in time to the Sintashta culture chariots that it is impossible to say for certain which region had chariots first.

The Sintashta-Arkaim culture was not alone. Between about 2100 and 1800 b.c., Sintashta-Arkaim was the easternmost link in a chain of three northern steppe cultures that shared many funeral rituals, bronze weapon types, tool types, pottery styles, and cheekpiece designs. The middle one, with perhaps the oldest radiocarbon dates, was on the middle Volga—the Potapovka group. The western link was on the upper Don—the Filatovka group. The Don and Volga groups had no fortified settlements; they continued the mobile lifestyle of the earlier Poltavka era. This small cluster of metal-rich late Middle Bronze Age cultures in the steppes around the southern Urals, between the Don and the Tobol, had a tremendous influence on the later customs and styles of the Eurasian Late Bronze Age from China to the Carpathians.

The Late Bronze Age Srubnaya horizon grew out of the Potapovka-Filatovka west of the Urals; east of the Urals, the Late Bronze Age Petrovka-Alakul horizon grew out of Sintashta-Arkaim. Many archaeologists have suggested that Sintashta-Arkaim might represent the speakers of Indo-Iranian, the parent language from which Sanskrit and Avestan Iranian evolved. The excavator of Arkaim, Gennady Zdanovich, has speculated that the prophet Zoroaster was born there. Political extremists, Slavic nationalists, and religious cultists have made the site a sort of shrine. These late Middle Bronze Age Don-Tobol cultures need no such exaggeration. As the apparent source of many of the traits that define the Late Bronze Age of the Eurasian steppes, they are interesting enough.


At the beginning of the Late Bronze Age, about 1850–1700 b.c., people across the northern steppes began to lead much more sedentary, localized lives. Permanent timber buildings were erected at settlements where tents or wagons had been used before, and people stayed in those buildings long enough to deposit thick middens of garbage outside and around them. These sites are so much easier to find that settlement sites spring into archaeological visibility at the start of the Late Bronze Age as if a veil had been lifted; they cover a strip of northern steppe extending from Ukraine to northern Kazakhstan. A few Middle Bronze Age potsherds usually are found among the thousands of Late Bronze Age potsherds at Srubnaya sites in the western steppes, suggesting that the same places were being used but in new and quite different ways. We are not sure what that difference was—the nature of the Late Bronze Age economy is fiercely debated.

In the eastern steppes, east of the Urals, the Late Bronze Age witnessed the spread of the Andronovo horizon (1800–1200 b.c.) from Petrovka-Alakul origins. Most Andronovo culture settlements were in new places, which had not been occupied during the preceding Eneolithic, but then the Andronovo horizon represented the first introduction of herding economies in many places east of the Urals. Srubnaya and Andronovo shared a general resemblance in their settlement forms, funeral rituals, ceramics, and metal tools and weapons. We should not exaggerate these resemblances—as in the Early Bronze Age Yamnaya phenomenon, this was a horizon or a related pair of horizons, not a single culture. Still, it was the first time in human history that such a chain of related cultures extended from the Carpathians to the Pamirs, right across the heart of the Eurasian steppes.

Almost immediately, people using Andronovo-style pots and metal weapons made contact with the irrigation-based urban civilizations at the northern edge of the Mesopotamian-Iranian world, in northern Afghanistan and southern Turkmenistan—the Bactria-Margiana civilization—and also with the western fringes of the emerging Chinese world, in Xinjiang and Gansu. These contacts might have started at the end of the Middle Bronze Age, about 2000 b.c., before the Andronovo culture proper began, but they continued through the early Andronovo stages. Once the chain of Late Bronze Age steppe cultures grappled with these civilizations to the east and south, Eurasia began to be, tenatively, a single interacting world.

We have much to learn about exactly how the Srubnaya and Andronovo economies worked. Some western Srubnaya settlements in Ukraine have yielded cultivated cereals, but the role of agriculture farther east is debated. One study of an early Srubnaya settlement in the Samara River valley, east of the Volga, yielded evidence that the site was occupied year-round, or at least cattle were butchered during all seasons of the year. Intensive botanical study recovered not a single cultivated grain, however, and the caries-free teeth of the Srubnaya people buried in a nearby kurgan testify to a low-carbohydrate diet. Waterlogged sediments from the bottom of a well at this site, Krasno Samarskoe, yielded thousands of charred seeds of Chenopodium, or goosefoot, a wild plant. At least in some areas, then, permanent year-round settlements might have been supported by a herding-and-gathering economy, with little or no agriculture.

During the Late Bronze Age copper was mined on an almost industrial scale across the steppes. Particularly large mining complexes were located in the southern Urals, at Kargaly near Orenburg, and in central Kazakhstan, near Karaganda. The raw copper ore, the rock itself, seems to have been exported from the mines. Smelting and metalworking were widely dispersed activities; traces are found in many Srubnaya and Andronovo settlements. Andronovo tin mines have been excavated in the Zerafshan valley near Samarkand. True tin bronzes predominated in the east, at many Andronovo sites, while arsenical bronzes continued to be more common in the west, at Srubnaya sites.

The combined Srubnaya and Andronovo horizons might well have been the social network through which Indo-Iranian languages—the kind of languages spoken by the Scythians and Saka a thousand years later—first spread across the steppes. This does not imply that Srubnaya or Andronovo was a single ethnolinguistic group; the new language could have been disseminated through various populations with the widespread adoption of a new ritual and political system. The diffusion of Srubnaya and Andronovo funeral rituals, with their public sacrifices of horses, sheep, and cattle, involved the public performance of a ritual drama shaped very much by political and economic contests for power.

Humans gave a portion of their herds and well-crafted verses of praise to the gods, and the gods, in return, provided protection from misfortune and the blessings of power and prosperity. "Let this racehorse bring us good cattle and good horses, male children, and all-nourishing wealth," pleaded a Sanskrit prayer in book 1, hymn 162, of the Rig Veda. It goes on, "Let the horse with our offerings achieve sovereign power for us." This relationship was mirrored in the mortal world when wealthy patrons sponsored public funeral feasts in return for the approval and loyalty of their clients. The Indic and Iranian poetry of the Rig Veda and Avesta offers direct testimony of this kind of system. The people received spectacle with their meat—they witnessed an elaborately scripted sacrifice punctuated by poems full of drama, rich in emotion, occasionally bawdy and earthy, and filled with clever metaphors and triple and double meanings. The best of these verbal displays were memorized, repeated, and shared, and they became part of the collective medium through which a variety of different peoples ended up speaking Indo-Iranian languages across most of the Eurasian steppes.

"Let us speak great words as men of power in the sacrificial gathering," said the standard closing line attached to several different hymns in book 2, one of the oldest parts of the Rig Veda, probably composed about 1500 B.C. This line expresses very well the connections among language, public ritual, verbal artistry, and the projection of secular power. A tradition that had begun in the western steppes thousands of years earlier, with simpler animal sacrifices, developed by the Late Bronze Age into a vehicle for the spread of a new kind of culture across the Eurasian steppes.

See alsoDomestication of the Horse (vol. 1, part 4).


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David W. Anthony

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Bronze Age Herders of the Eurasian Steppes

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