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How herding nomads created the network that carried civilization across Central Asia more than 4,000 years ago


Archaeologists are uncovering Bronze Age settlements where modern Uzbek and Tajik pastoralists today drive their flocks through the same landscape as their ancient forebears

Archaeologists are uncovering Bronze Age settlements where modern Uzbek and Tajik pastoralists today drive their flocks through the same landscape as their ancient forebears. (Courtesy Michael Frachetti)

Vast stretches of Central Asia feel eerily uninhabited. Fly at 30,000 feet over the southern part of the former Soviet Union—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan—and there are long moments when no town or road or field is visible from your window. The landscape of stark desert, trackless steppe, and rugged mountains seems to swallow up anything human. It is little surprise, then, that this region remains largely terra incognita to most archaeologists.

Wandering bands and tribes roamed this immense area for 5,000 years, herding goat, sheep, cattle, and horses across immense steppes, through narrow valleys, and over high snowy passes. They left occasional tombs that survived the ages, and on rare occasions settled down and built towns or even cities. But for the most part, these peoples left behind few physical traces of their origins, beliefs, or ways of life. What we know of these nomadic pastoralists comes mainly from their periodic forays into India, the Middle East, and China, where they often wreaked havoc and earned a fearsome reputation as enemies of urban life.

As early as the fifth century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus warned of a barbaric and warlike pastoralist people called the Scythians who lived north of the Caucuses and drank human blood from skulls. The hardy Xiongnu from the Siberian steppes raided Chinese towns in the second century B.C., prompting construction of the Great Wall. And troops from Mongolia led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu Khan laid waste to the rich metropolis of Baghdad in A.D. 1258, ending one of Islam’s most glorious periods.

In the past century, scholars have continued where the ancient writers left off, criticizing these people as destructive, dismissing them as marginal, or, at best, casting them as a harsh tonic for restoring vigor to decaying and soft agricultural societies from ancient Mesopotamia to Imperial Rome to Han China. “Nomadic people are generally the invincible opponents of civilization,” wrote sociologist Jerome Dowd in 1907. A half-century later, British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler blamed the aggressive, chariot-driving Aryans who swept in from the steppes for the demise of the peaceful Indus River civilization after 1800 B.C., though later archaeologists dismissed that claim.


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Andrew Lawler is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

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