Articles on Central Asia: Nomadic heritage

The territory of Central Asia, which consists of vast expanses of steppe-land, desert and semi-desert with fine seasonal pastures, was destined by nature for the development of nomadic cattle-breeding. Between the seventh and third centuries b.c. it was inhabited by a large number of tribes, called Scythians by the Greeks, and Sakas by the Persians. The history of the Central Asian nomads is inseparable from that of the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppe zone. Their political and economic life was closely linked, and their material culture had much in common. It should also be noted that, despite their distinctive qualities, the nomadic tribes were closely connected with the agricultural population of Central Asia. In fact, the history and movements of these nomadic tribes and the settled population cannot be considered in isolation; each had its impact on the other, and this interdependence must be properly understood.

Most of the Central Asian people are originally nomadic. The optimal size of a nomadic unit is usually small because the land cannot sustain a group of animals that is too large in number. Too many animals would require the group to move constantly to look for new pasture for the animals. The best unit is a tribal unit, which is a small group. In this case, the unit does not have to travel as much since the animals are not consuming the grass as rapidly. It is difficult to go beyond this tribal system of organization. People followed these patterns and of course their lives also depended on their horses. The horses gave them mobility in warfare and made them an effective military force. The sedentary people whom they came in to contact with did not have this mobility. Women played a very important role in the nomadic group. The economic structure of the nomadic organization cannot be sustained without them. Women carry out all the chores and labor. These so-called “barbarians” by the Chinese are far advanced in terms of women’s rights. We know in later periods of nomadic history that women have to right to own property and animals, which is unique in traditional times. They have a right to divorce. While the men can focus on warfare and fighting against enemies, the women would take care of economic basis of the entire economy of a nomadic group.

The culture of the central Asian nomads is summed up in one word: a horse. They were the first people in the world to climb on the back of a horse and learn to ride. Estimates of when they achieved this feat range from 4200 BC to 900 BC. From that moment, there was no looking back. They lived in the saddle. They had no buildings, no houses, no farms, no towns—they had no home and they did not want one. They were nomads. They spent their lives on their horses, roaming wild and free over the endless steppe. They put their children astride horses when they could barely even walk to start learning to ride. They put little bows and arrows in their children's hands as soon as they could grip something. Writers in the civilized cultures who observed the nomads stressed that these people did everything on horseback, to include performing bodily functions. The nomads obtained their food by hunting and from their livestock. They had great herds of cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and, of course, extra horses. They subsisted on meat and dairy products and had the physiques to prove it.  There were dozens of distinct  nomad tribes, representing numerous different ethnicities, that emerged from central Asia during the ancient and medieval eras. Given their own illiteracy and the hostility of their literate neighbors, the history of the horse nomads is obscure, fragmentary, and confused. It is rife with contradictions about this or that tribe's actual ethnic identity and relationship to other tribes.


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