Steppe nomads are largely overlooked in the scope of history. We hear of the bow and arrow totting and horse riding Scythians or Huns or Avars or Cumans but know little about them. They are folks that inhabited the narrow band of steppe some 400 to 500 miles wide that runs 6,000 miles across Asia from Mongolia through central Asia to the Caspian Sea and can include the Pannonian plain of Hungary and the Anatolian highlands of Turkey. These folk began to inhabit these grassy plains and domesticated the horse in the mid 5th millennium B.C. They maintained domestic herds of sheep, cattle, camels, horses and goats and lived a nomadic life.
From 4500 B.C. the steppe peoples of upper Caspian Sea spread over central and southern Asia and Europe. Recent DNA testing has established the fact of an extensive migration of peoples throughout these areas, spreading the Indo-European language in the process. So the NAZI’s happen to be right about one thing in their understanding of a process of an expansion of an Aryan race. A race they erroneously claimed to be some kind of superior version of mankind with claim to dominate other peoples. However, evidence shows that the expansion was not simply a transmission of Indo-European language from one people to another, as others held as more plausible. It was a people supplanting other peoples across a wide area.
Of course NAZI race theories turned into an odious justification to exterminate a whole ethnic group. The race idea as we know, centers on an idea of a Master race or people, the Aryans. Under this thinking Folks that is peoples, through a Darwinian evolution, struggle for dominance, survival of the fittest, in this case became the Aryans. Scientific evidence shows that Aryans (Indo-Iranians/Indo-Europeans) from Caspian Steppes used the domesticated horse as a means to spread throughout a vast area of Eurasia, from India through Europe in the Mid-5th Millennium, evidence of which is based on transmission of the Indo-European languages and genetic markers. The racial component of Indo-European migration is albeit highly controversial. There are some who discount the idea of an invasion of blond, blue eye nomads into Northern India completely or push the invasion back in time to some 50,000 years.
NAZI’s placed special emphasis on the superiority of the Nordic peoples, a supposed segment of the Aryans, so people like the Slavs were deemed inferior and were rightfully meant to be oppressed. All this thinking, being frightfully twisted and evil, can be found in the writings of Hans F. K. Gunther, a 20th century race thinker, several of whose books, could be found in Hitler’s library, and seen to have been well worn. The question one has to ask oneself, who’s to blame, the NAZI’s or Darwin? Today talk of the superiority of one race or group over another is rightfully forbidden but the Darwinian ideas remain. I suspect the idea of racial superiority, once advocated by Darwinists, have been besmirched by the odious application of its ideas.
The ideas bandied about today regarding evolutionary progress are nearly as fanciful, as those of the National Socialists. Socio-biology purports all manner of benign characteristics to human kind that have arisen from the bestial Evolutionary struggle for survival: including kinship, love and art. Most of the theories are based on fanciful supposition and imagination with little or no evidence to support them and neither falsifiable nor verifiable, the required characteristics of most of science endeavors. The most inexplicable to evolutionary thinking is the presence of altruism. How would anyone who gained a purported survival advantage that comes with altruism (a characteristic that promotes the welfare of the group) pass this adaptation along, since they unlike their compatriots, will willingly sacrifice their altruistic genes in lieu of another’s more selfish genes? It’s unlikely that the altruistic individual has a survival advantage to another who lacks it. The first to acquire such altruistic gene would willingly give themselves up to the wonderment of the other that lacks it and not pass it along. I am certain something more complex and profound is operating in the world than just bare, raw survival instincts. Because if altruism generates a survival adaptation then it’s love not struggle for survival that drove evolution.
As I am wont to do, I have digressed into a polemic that has little to do with the subject of the blog. Back to the Steppe. Steppe peoples played a huge role in history but their role is rarely recognized. For one they didn’t have written language, so they couldn’t record their history. They didn’t construct buildings and structures either, nor literature nor art. Their religion was either folk religion or borrowed from others. So it was up to the settled civilized peoples to record their history.
The important idea to remember about the steppes peoples, when united they were the most formidable military forces in Eurasia. We in civilized cultures presume a superiority with our institutions and art and writing and architecture, so the military superiority of the steppe peoples comes as a surprise.
Since they lived in grassy plains they could raise vast numbers of horses, far more than settled peoples. The war horse was a great expense to settled peoples. A war horse eats well over 30,000 calories a day versus 3-4,000 for a man. So a cavalry troop of a 1000 horses would have at same nutrition demands as something like 10,000 soldiers would have. Steppe armies could have several horses as backup and reserve for each warrior as well, thus a steppe army of 20,000 might have upwards 100,000 horses far surpassing the number a civilization could muster.
Steppe people’s military prowess and tactics were far superior to settled peoples. When the civilized army, far less mobile, went out to pursue the steppe peoples, these peoples would disappear into the vast grass lands of the steppes. When the steppe peoples came to attack the civilized infantry, they would use a variety of hit and run tactics to defeat them. Steppe nomads could stand off and assail the standing infantry with thousands of arrows and decimate them at a distance. When the standing army chose to pursue, after being harried, they would be at a disadvantage losing unit cohesion, which the steppe cavalry would then destroy them in detail. In fact, without settled villages or cities an invading army would have little to nothing to attack and nothing to pillage or live on for that matter in contrast to invading a settled country.
One example of the futility of tracking down the steppe peoples is recorded by the Greek historian, Herodotus. The Scythians had previously invaded Persia and contributed to the death of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the vast Persian Empire in 530 B.C. Cyrus the Great is referred to as the anointed (messiah) by Isaiah in Chapter 45. This is the same Persian Empire that the Spartan “300” fought at the battle of Thermopylae. Herodotus reports the expedition of the later Persian King, Darius in the steppe north of the Black Sea in 513 B.C. The Scythians, a nomadic steppe peoples, employed standard evasive tactics and never allowed themselves to meet the Persians in a set battle. The Persians, with an immense military force (transported by 600 ships with countless thousands of troops), attempted to bring the Scythians to battle but succeeded in only wandering around the grassy steppe, being harassed by them, running out of provisions, food and water, dying with sickness. Additionally, Scythians would have no cities to pillage. They returned to Thrace (Northern Greece) then to cross back into Asia Minor again. Herodotus records that the Scythians weren’t any problem after this chastening. Yet it goes without saying, a massive expedition of that nature couldn’t be carried out each year.
Settled peoples ofttimes would employ mounted steppe peoples as auxiliaries to aid them in fighting the nomadic steppe peoples. But ultimately the settled peoples didn’t have a full proof method of fighting the stepped peoples until the appearance of the hand gun. The musket wasn’t accurate beyond 40 or 50 yards, which was less than the bow and arrow deadly, with armor piecing abilities, at distances far beyond that.
Part of the military superiority of the Steppe peoples comes from the advantage that was the composite bow that they employed. It was made of wood, bone, sinew and glue. The bow could be small enough to shoot from horse back. It had recurves to enhance the power of the bow. This bow allowed them to stand afar and pelt the enemy with thousands of armor penetrating arrows from 100 yards or more away. This was not the English long bow, fired off by the stationary the English yeoman, but a mobile band on horseback.
The steppe peoples employed a saddle as well that allowed them to use their bow and arrows hands free, so they could remain on horseback as they shot. Latter in the first Millennium A.D. stirrups began to appear that greatly enhanced the riders’ ability to control the horse.
One of the first steppe peoples mentioned in literary sources are the Scythians. The Scythians first used mounted warfare back in the 9th Century. The Greeks spoke of them. They contributed to the demise of the Assyrian Empire 612 B.C. The Persian King Darius led an expedition against them in 513 B.C. but never was able to force them into a set battle. The Scythians would only harass and retreat before Darius’s huge expedition into what we know to be the Russian Steppes. After suffering sufficient loss and deprivation in pursuit of the Scythians for a month to do battle, Darius set up eight forts and returned having conquered enough Scythian territory to make them respect the Persians.
The bottom line is that not many expeditions to subdue the Steppe nomads were successful. Various strategies were employed by the Chinese who fought them throughout its history. Divide and conquer diplomacy was tried, using one group of Steppe nomads to attack another. More times than not the Steppe peoples were divided. It was when they were united like the Huns or the Mongols they became a terror.
Another device, tribute was paid to pacify them. The hope here is that the leadership of the group can be kept happy by being bought off. Of course, over time the demands became greater and greater.
Expeditions against them were very expensive, and since they were migratory livestock herders there were no cities to conquer. A civilized army could rarely engage them into battle as previously mentioned but would have to suffer hit and run raids, plus there were no cities or crops to destroy. Interestingly, the nomad domesticated the horse, but this population of the stepped came AFTER agriculture was undertaken. Remember that the Steppe folk were a livestock herder first: sheep, goats, cattle. So the settled agriculturalist migrated to the grassy steppes to pursue animal husbandry. Then became champions of the horse, used to overshadow the settled peoples.
The Turks and Parthians, among many others, for example came off the steppe and overwhelmed the settled society, as did the Mongols. Huns, steppe peoples said to be related to the fearsome Xiongnu (pronounced shwang-new) on the far Eastern side of great Steppe next to the Chinese, drove the so-called barbarians before them and even attacked the Rome Empire and led to its downfall in the 5th Century A.D. The Eastern Romans were able to deflect the Huns to the West and who wrecked it, relieving the Eastern to exist for another 1,000 in some form or another until 1453.
When the steppe peoples united they could overwhelm civilized societies. But they didn’t have ability to lay siege to cities. The exception was the Mongols, the most famous of all the steppe peoples and the most successful. They were able to acquire the siege technology from the Northern Chinese in the early 13th Century and thus waylay fortified cities. They easily destroyed settled societies and used great brutality to do so. Cities were depopulated and whole populations either executed or marched off, heedless of any deaths resulting, to be employed at conquering other cities. The most notorious example of the brutality of the Mongols was the destruction of Bagdad in 1258. Bagdad was the location of Islam’s Caliphate, the spiritual head of Islam. Bagdad was a metropolitan city of a million people or more. After a siege that lasted from January 29 to February 10, 1258, the city was subdued. Three thousand of the cities dignitaries come out of the city to negotiate the surrender of the city. These were slaughtered. And the rest of the city was put to the sword, countless died, some sources say up to a 1 million. Bagdad didn’t recover until several centuries later.
Curiously, there have been revisionist views of the effect of the Mongol conquest, one recently being the book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford. Mr. Weatherford has quite an affection for those marauding Mongols. In fact they are meant to appear quite enlightened and tolerant, far more so than the civilizations that they slaughtered. These are not your daddy’s monstrous Mongols. In contrast they are the linchpins to the modern world that promoted exchange between the civilizations of Eurasia, which their conquest over all the vast steppe lands accomplished. Nonetheless, the Arabs of the Middle East never forgot their brutality and the Chinese rejoiced when they expelled them in 1368 A.D.
The arrival of the Mongols accompanied large scale population declines. According to one scholar they reduced carbon footprint in the atmosphere by several hundred tons of carbon di-oxide, as a result of the world’s surface reverting back to forestation; crop lands were no long being cultivated. I guess you could say they were environmentally friendly. One of the strategies of the Mongols was to turn farm land back into grass land. I presume to provide grazing for their horses.
The Mongols were the most successful killers of all time, attributed to killing 20 million people. Current revisionist historians have belittled the figure, but this brutality is a story told by the losers. Sometimes it is more accurate when the winners don’t write the history.