The People Who Lived in the Ancient Steppes

The People Who Lived in the Ancient Steppes

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The people who lived in Steppes were overwhelmingly horsemen. Many were at least semi-nomadic with herds of livestock. Nomadism explains why there were waves of occupants. These Steppe people, Central Eurasians, traveled to and mated with people in the peripheral civilizations. Herodotus is one of our main literary sources for the Steppe tribes, but he isn't terribly reliable. The people of the ancient Near East recorded dramatic encounters with the people of the Steppe. Archaeologists and anthropologists have supplied more information about the Steppes people, based on tombs and artifacts.

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The barbarian king Atilla with Pope St. Leo. sedmak / Getty Images

Contrary to contemporary standards, Hunnish women mingled freely with strangers and widows even acted as leaders of local bands. Hardly a great nation, they battled amongst themselves as often as with outsiders and were as likely to fight for as against an enemy -- since such employment offered unaccustomed luxury.

The Huns are best known for their fear-inspiring leader Attila, the Scourge of God.

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The Cimmerians (Kimmerians) were Bronze Age communities of horsemen north of the Black Sea from the second millennium B.C. The Scythians drove them out in the 8th century. Cimmerians fought their way into Anatolia and the Near East. They controlled the central Zagros in the early to mid 7th century. In 695, they sacked Gordion, in Phrygia. With the Scythians, the Cimmerians attacked Assyria, repeatedly.

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Kushan sculpture of Buddha and his disciples. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Kushan describes one branch of the Yuezhi, an Indo-European group driven from northwestern China in 176-160 B.C. The Yuezhi reached Bactria (northwest Afghanistan and Tajikistan) around 135 B.C., moved south into Gandhara, and established a capital near Kabul.The Kushan kingdom was formed by Kujula Kadphises in c. 50 BC. He extended his territory to the mouth of the Indus so he could use the sea route for trade and thereby bypass the Parthians. The Kushans spread Buddhism to Parthia, Central Asia, and China. The Kushan Empire reached its peak under its 5th ruler, Buddhist King Kanishka, c. 150 A.D.

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Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

The Parthian Empire existed from about 247 B.C.-A.D. 224. It is thought that the founder of the Parthian empire was Arsaces I. The Parthian Empire was located in modern Iran, from the Caspian Sea to the Tigris and Euphrates Valley. The Sasanians, under Ardashir I (who ruled from A.D. 224-241), defeated the Parthians, thereby putting an end to the Parthian Empire.

To the Romans, the Parthians proved a formidable opponent, especially after the defeat of Crassus at Carrhae.

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Scythian wooden bridle ornament. Heritage Images / Getty Images

The Scythians (Sakans to the Persians) lived in the Steppes, from the 7th to the 3rd century B.C., displacing the Cimmerians in the area of Ukraine. Scythians and Medes may have attacked Urartu in the 7th century. Herodotus says the language and culture of the Scythians were like that of nomadic Iranian tribes. He also says Amazons mated with Scythians to produce the Sarmatians. At the end of the fourth century, the Scythians crossed the Tanais or Don River, settling down between it and the Volga. Herodotus called the Goths Scythians.

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The Sarmatians (Sauromatians) were a nomadic Iranian tribe related to the Scythians. They lived on the plains between the Black and Caspian Sea, separated from the Scythians by the Don River. Tombs show they moved west into the Scythian territory by the mid-third century. They demanded tribute from Greek towns on the Black Sea, but sometimes allied with the Greeks in fighting the Scythians.

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Xiongnu and Yuezhi of Mongolia

The Chinese pushed the nomadic Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) back across the Yellow River and into the Gobi desert in the 3rd century B.C. and then built the Great Wall to keep them out. It is not known where the Xiongnu came from, but they went to the Altai Mountains and Lake Balkash, where the nomadic Indo-Iranian Yuezhi lived. The two groups of nomads fought, with the Xiongnu triumphant. The Yuezhi migrated to the Oxus valley. Meanwhile, the Xiongnu went back to harass the Chinese in about 200 B.C. By 121 B.C. the Chinese had successfully pushed them back into Mongolia and so the Xiongnu went back to raid the Oxus Valley from 73 and 44 B.C., and the cycle began again.


"Cimmerians" The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology. Timothy Darvill. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Marc Van de Mieroop's "A History of the Ancient Near East"

Christopher I. Beckwith "Empires of the Silk Roa"d. 2009.

Amazons in the Scythia: New Finds at the Middle Don, Southern Russia, by Valeri I. Guliaev "World Archaeology" 2003 Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

Jona Lendering

Library of Congress: Mongolia


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