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Steppe Nomads of Central Asia

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Steppe Nomads of Central Asia

From the sixth millennium BC, people had inhabited the steppes of Central Asia—this area includes present-day Mongolia, Russia, and Siberia. The steppes were bleak grasslands in a region whose borders were defined by the Ural Mountains and the Gobi Desert. The climate was harsh, and only the hardiest could survive and thrive in it.

By 4500 BC, the people of the steppes were herding livestock and farming. By 2000 BC, they had learned to ride horses, which quickly acquired central importance in their culture. The combination of mastering horses and learning to work with iron—they were the first people to make wheels with spokes— made them into formidable warriors. The tribes of the steppes were much more fierce and aggressive than the peoples of the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean, China, and India. Rather than settling in one place and building cities, they roamed in bands, invading and attacking one another and also the settled civilizations on which their lands bordered. There were settlements in the region, especially around the area of the Black Sea, but nothing to resemble the planned cities of China, Greece, or Rome.

The Xiongnu succeeded in invading China and even dominating it at one time. The Huns swept into India in AD 460, but were repulsed; when they tried again after the Gupta civil war, however, they succeeded. The Huns would also invade Eastern Europe and establish themselves there permanently.

Between about 800 BC and AD 100, all these nomadic warrior tribes were on the move westward into Europe, where they would battle the Romans and the European tribes. The Xiongnu migrated both east and west in their attempt to conquer China. Tribes whose territory was already on the southern steppes moved south rather than west; the Parthians swept into the Persian Empire and the Kushans took control of India.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at: 

Early Asian Empires Practice Test

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