Ancient history

The nomads of the steppes

The steppes are a vast region of grasslands that stretches for 8,000 kilometers from southern Ukraine to Manchuria , in the East. The herdsmen who lived there around 3500 BC were the first humans to ride horses, becoming riders feared by all in the surrounding regions, called steppe nomads .
The climate of the steppes varies from the freezing cold of winter to the burning heat of summer, and there is very little rainfall. Because the climate is inhospitable, farmers did not move into the region until about 4,500 BC. and when they did, they continued to trust animals more than crops. The prairies provided good grazing for cattle, sheep, and horses. Around 3500 B.C. these ranchers used their horses for riding, rather than for food, becoming the first to do so in the ancient world.
The domestication of the horse had a great impact on the society of the inhabitants of the prairies , for it meant that they could become fully nomadic, moving from one place to another with their herds. This change greatly influenced other civilizations as well, as groups of armed horsemen could attack settlements at will, so that raids by steppe nomads soon became feared in many parts of China, India, and Europe.
The oldest known steppe culture is the Sredny Stog (around 4400-3500 BC). These are people who lived in permanent settlements of wooden houses near the Dnieper River and who were the first to domesticate the horse, although at this time most horses were used for food.
Nonetheless, some people began to ride them. By the third millennium, steppe peoples were already using ox-drawn carts and working copper.
Around 1850 BC, horses were used to pull light two-wheeled chariots. This invention would later spread throughout the Near and Middle East, where it had a dramatic impact on the art of war. In the first millennium BC, the people of the steppes were completely nomadic.
Much of our knowledge of these steppe nomads comes from their burials, as their nomadic way of life means they lived in tents. His belongings were light and portable; the carts transported household utensils and stores. Sheep were an important source of wealth and could be traded for all sorts of valuable items. Horses were also of vital importance to them and were often buried alongside their owners. At Pazryk in the Altai mountains of Siberia, for example, the burial of a steppe chief from the 5th century BC. it included a disassembled chariot and nine horses.

The Scythians

Greek writers from 600 BC describe a people they call Scythians. The Scythians were mounted bands of warriors formed around strong chiefdoms. The group's allegiance was given to its chief and rival gangs fought over grass and water. Sometimes these bands formed loose alliances controlled by the king of a dominant group.
The Scythians were armed with iron swords, impressive iron spears, and bows, shooting arrows said to pierce bronze armor. They were fierce warriors and the Greeks tell us that they tore the scalps of their enemies and kept them as trophies. But despite this fame, after their defeat by Philip II of Macedon in 339 BC, the Scythians lost their power and their empire finally collapsed in the 1st century AD .
The Scythians were by no means the last band of steppe warriors to terrorize the peoples of Europe. Indeed, for much of the next 2,000 years, a series of steppe peoples launched devastating attacks on Europe to the west, India to the south, and China to the east.
Among the most prominent attacks are those of the Huns , which appeared in Europe around 370 AD. Heading west from the steppes, the Huns left behind them a trail of destruction and death. Under the orders of his best known boss, Attila , who reigned between the years 434 and 453, the Huns created a gigantic empire, incorporating the people they conquered into their army. Their force was so formidable that even the Roman Empire was forced to pay tribute to them.
To the east, China also suffered similar attacks from different nomadic warrior tribes. In the following centuries, the barbarians would pose a continual threat.

Frozen tombs of the steppe nomads

Around 400 BC, on a high plateau among the Altai mountains of Siberia, a human group related to the Scythians followed a similar nomadic way of life. We know about them because their bodies and possessions have been found in their graves. They buried their dead in wood-lined graves dug during the warm season, when the ground was soft. Moisture formed in the tomb after it was built and then froze during the freezing winter, plus the earthen mound built on top, kept the contents of the burial permanently frozen. In 1995 the body of a man was found, whom archaeologists named the Warrior , inside a wooden coffin with a series of bows and arrows, an ax and a knife. He had a deer tattooed on his right shoulder, he wore leather boots and a fur coat. Beside him lay his most prized possession:his horse.

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