Great Empires of Central Asia, Part 3: Pirates on a Sea of Grass
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Long before the Huns, or the Mongols, or the Aryans, a different people ruled the Eurasian plains. Meet the inventors of thunderbolt-hurling sky gods.
Imagine a time long before Asia’s vast interior was crossed by railroads or telephone lines. Thousands of years before anyone dreamed of the Silk Route; before there were friendly roads and caravansaries to welcome travelers from across the desert. Long before anyone had heard the names of China, or India, or Rome.
It is 1900 BCE, or thereabouts. Far to the west, the Sumerians are experiencing their Renaissance, Egypt has entered its Middle Kingdom era, and Babylon is about to rise to power for the first time.
But here in Central Asia, there is only wilderness.
Picture yourself in a camp of animal-hide tents, surrounded on every side by a sea of open grassland and rolling hills, broken at distant intervals by small groves of trees swaying in the wind. Your only companions are the tight-knit group of people you’ve known all your life, and the herds of sheep, goats and cattle that accompany you in your migrations across the plains.
One morning, you hear a strange rumbling beneath the cold soil.
Putting your ear to the grass, you hear a thunder in the earth; an approaching storm unlike any you’ve ever heard.
Then you raise your eyes and see them pouring over the northern hills: men in horse-drawn chariots, clad in armor of fur and boiled leather, notching arrows to to the strings of great bows, whooping and shouting as they descend on your camp.
Now look back on this moment with modern eyes, and ask — who are these invaders?
Mongols? No, it’s thousands of years too early for them. Huns or Turks? They won’t be around for centuries. Aryans, perhaps? Closer, but still a few hundred years in the future.
While we don’t know what these people called themselves, we know them today as the Andronovo culture. Their charioteers controlled vast swathes of the Eurasian steppe for more than a millennium (roughly 2000 to 900 BCE), from the time of the Sumerians until shortly before the rise of the Scythians, whom you’ll meet in Part 3 of this series.
They raised at least one mighty city, and perfected the art of fast-paced chariot warfare at a time when other militaries relied on donkey-drawn wagons and lumbering ox-carts. Most impressively of all, they pioneered the model of a continent-spanning nomad empire, more than three thousand years before Genghis Khan.
And yet, despite these people’s vast range and cultural longevity, we know astonishingly little about them today.
We know that at their peak, the territory they controlled stretched from what’s now southern Russia almost to the northern border of Iran; from the Caspian Sea to western Mongolia and parts of China.
In other words, they spanned the Central Asian steppe — that sprawling ocean of grassland that has nourished nomadic populations since prehistory, and continues to do so today.
Their only significant immediate neighbors were the opulent Oxus Civilization, a.k.a. the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), whom you met in Part 1 of this series. Apart from the BMAC — who preferred to stick to their fertile riverplain — the Andronovo people largely had free run of the Central Asian steppe for more than a thousand years.
Their ancestors came from the Sintashta culture, which is even less studied than its Andronovo descendants. Around 1900 BCE, the constantly warring Sintashta villages seem to have suddenly joined forces and exploded outward from their small territory, to conquer or absorb the surrounding tribes and construct a “Land of Towns” across thousands of miles of open steppe-land.
Perhaps the Andronovo warriors had their own “Genghis Khan,” uniting the tribes and spurring them on to greatness.
But even before this expansion, it’s clear that the Sintashta culture had already given birth to several key technologies, ideas and ways of life that would influence Asian, Middle Eastern and European culture for millennia to come.
Sintashta (or proto-Sintashta) burials contain the earliest known horse-drawn chariots, developed from ox-carts around 3000 BCE — along with hoards of copper and bronze weaponry forged with strikingly expert skill.
It’s also very likely that the Sintashta people spoke the common ancestor tongue of the Indo-Iranian language family, which would someday give birth to the Old Persian and Avestan languages, as well as modern Farsi, Hindi, Punjabi, Pashto, Kurdish, and dozens of other languages spoken throughout Asia today — as well as the Hittite and Mitanni languages of Mesopotamia’s chariot-riding conquerors.
Sometime around 1700 BCE, Andronovo people raised a great circular city in the heart of Russia.
We don’t know what its original inhabitants called it — but when Russian archaeologists discovered its ruins in 1987, they named it Arkaim.
At the city’s peak, approximately 2,000 people lived within its walls. Around a vast circular stronghold, two outer bastions of timber and clay brick enclosed sixty dwellings, most with hearths, cellars, wells and metallurgical furnaces. The houses’ doors opened on an inner circular street paved with wood, lined by covered drainage pits.
At the center of the city, a great rectangular complex, approached by four intricately constructed passages, served as a meeting space for thousands of inhabitants — and also as a focal point for shamanic ritual.
For, like the great Oxus city of Gonur Tepe, Arkaim was no sprawling settlement grown out of control.
Arkaim was a carefully planned city, constructed to reflect the order of Heaven on Earth.
As a matter of fact, scholars have noted that Arkaim’s structure of concentric circles closely reflects the model of the universe described in many schools of Indo-European spiritual literature, from the Vedas of ancient India (whose earliest passages date from around this same time) to the Avesta of Persian Zoroastrianism (which appeared a few hundred years later, around 1300 BCE).
Arkaim’s structure of three concentric rings of walls and three radial streets precisely replicates the layout of the legendary King Yima’s sacred city, described in the Rigveda.
When we look at Arkaim — and at the burials of Andronovo people across the steppe — we seem to be gazing into the very birth of Indo-Aryan culture!
The chariots and bows of northern India’s warrior aristocracy are here. So are the roots of ancient Persian philosophy, and the ancestor of all Indo-Iranian languages. Here is the thunder of wheels across the plains, and Zeus and Thor and Indra hurling lightning-bolts from the sky.
But were the Andronovo people actually Aryan? Were they Indo-European at all?
The answer to that question is more complex than it first appears. In fact, it raises a specter that’s haunted Central Asian archaeology for more than a century: how exactly do we classify these people, when they don’t seem to fit into any of our neatly labeled boxes?
The great mixing bowl of the Asian steppe makes mincemeat of such classifications.
One theory that enjoyed some early popularity was that the Andronovo people were ancestors of the Aryan charioteers who later ruled northern India. Andronovo people clearly favored the horse-drawn chariots beloved by many Indo-Iranian peoples. They also seem to have worn the tunics and trousers later made famous by Indo-Iranian warriors like the Scythians and Sarmatians.
But this “pure Indo-Iranian” theory just doesn’t fit the data.
Research on Andronovo bodies preserved in the frigid steppe soil has revealed that many of their skulls “exhibit pronounced Caucasoid features,” and that their DNA is similar to that of modern Caucasian peoples, containing genes for pale skin, blue eyes and blond hair.
So were the Andronovo people more like “Vikings in chariots?” No, not that, either.
They also possessed several genes now found in Kazakh, Mongol and Siberian populations, hinting that (at least some of) the Andronovo people may have had epicanthic folds around their eyes, and may have resembled modern Kazakh or Siberian people at least as much as Swedes or Finns.
Their cultural organization was just as varied. While some Andronovo people dwelled in large planned cities like Arkaim, thousands of others lived in tents as they traveled with their herds — perhaps even switching between the two lifestyles seasonally, as many Central Asian people do today.
They rode chariots and fought with bows and arrows like Indo-Aryans, and the structure of their burials clearly hints at an affinity for patriarchal sky gods — yet they freely mixed these beliefs with a (presumably much older) system of shamanic practices, worshiping the Blue Sky and a myriad of nature spirits, as many peoples of the Asian steppe still do.
In fact, the Andronovo people seem to have been more of a loose confederation — a cultural movement, even — than a centralized civilization per se. Whatever name they gave themselves, they may have used it more as we use terms like “biker” or “goth” — referring not to citizens of an empire, but to people who follow a certain kind of lifestyle.
As a cultural movement, the Andronovo people likely spoke a variety of languages (including Finno-Ugric languages similar to modern Finnish, Indo-Iranian tongues distantly related to Persian, and ancestors of the Yeniseian languages spoken in Siberia), practiced a mixture of hunting, herding and urban ways of life, and readily imported tools and technologies from the peoples to the west, south and east of their heartland.
And yet, Andronovo people would not have considered themselves a “mishmash,” but a proud and distinctive culture all their own.
By comparison, consider the Tajik people of modern Asia. Their DNA carries a mix of Turkic, Mongolic and Caucasian genes. They may have pale or tan skin, dark or blond hair, and green or brown eyes — some with epicanthic folds like those of Chinese and Mongolian people. They speak an Indo-Iranian language, and mainly practice Islam.
Over the centuries, many cultures and ethnicities have tried to claim the Tajik people as their own — even as the Tajiks have remained proudly and distinctively themselves.
The Andronovo people may very well have represented a similar story. Among themselves, their varied culture and physical appearance would have made perfectly obvious sense. How could it be otherwise? It’s only today, when we look back from our world filled with a dozen or more divergent lines of their offspring, that these people seem so hard to classify.
This is another theme that will resound throughout this series — our unfortunate tendency, as modern outsiders, to instinctively think of Central Asian peoples as “in-betweeners.”
We know what Chinese people, for example, look like; and we know what Persian or Greek or Indian culture is — so therefore the Andronovo people and the Sogdians and Khwarezmians, whose empires interwove elements also found in those better-known civilizations —
They must be cultural and genetic “mutts,” right?
But in truth, aren’t we all cultural and genetic mutts?
Every civilization in history has drawn on influences from neighboring cultures. None of us can lay exclusive claim to all the foods, architectural motifs, musical genres and clothing styles found in any of our cities on any given day — much less to the colors of our skins or the shapes of our eyelids.
If we want to understand a culture, we have to resist this urge to classify it as “half this” and “one-third that.”
Andronovo people were not Nordic, or Mongolic, or Turkic, or Iranian, or Siberian. They were not “white,” nor were they any other ethnicity we’d immediately recognize today.
All those words describe elements of their culture and genetics that we might recognize when we see them among other, later peoples. But their culture stood on its own; an utterly unique achievement in human history.
The Andronovo people were not “half” or “one-third” of anything. They were completely themselves; nothing more or less.