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© Lonely Planet Publications
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History
Central Asia is perhaps the best place on earth to explore the reality of the
phrase ‘the sweep of history’. Populations, conquerors, cultures and ideas
have traversed the region’s steppes, deserts and mountains for millennia.
Central Asia’s role as a conduit between cultures is symbolised by the Silk
Road, through which the great civilisations of the East and the West first
made contact. But Central Asia was, and is, more than just a middle ground,
and its cultural history is far more than the sum of the influences brought
from the East and the West.
Here in the heart of the largest landmass on earth, vast steppes provided
the one natural resource – grass – required to build one of this planet’s most
formidable and successful forms of statehood, the nomadic empire. The grassfed horses by the millions and mounted archers remained the unstoppable
acme of open-ground warfare for more than 2500 years. How the settled
civilisations on the periphery of Eurasia interacted with successive waves of
mounted nomadic hordes is the main theme of the story of Central Asia.

For more on the Silk
Road, including
recommended books,
see p53.

See 
-halle.de/ca/bud/bud.htm
for more on the
archaeology of
southeastern Central Asia.

PREHISTORY & EARLY HISTORY
In the Middle Palaeolithic period, from 100,000 to 35,000 years ago, people
in Central Asia were isolated from Europe and elsewhere by ice sheets, seas
and swamps.
Cultural continuity begins in the late 3rd millennium BC with the IndoIranians, speakers of an unrecorded Indo-European dialect related distantly
to English. The Indo-Iranians are believed to have passed through Central
Asia on their way from the Indo-European homeland in southern Russia.
From Central Asia, groups headed southeast for India and southwest for
Iran. These peoples herded cattle, went to battle in chariots, and probably buried their dead nobles in burial mounds (kurgans). The Tajiks are
linguistic descendants of these ancient migrants. One of these subsequent
Indo-European groups was the Sakas (also known as Scythians), who have
left kurgans, rock carvings and other remains across Central Asia. For more
UNEARTHING THE AMAZONS
As early as the 5th century BC the Greek historian Herodotus knew of an army of women warriors, known as the Amazons, who were so dedicated to warfare that they allegedly cut off their
own right breast in order to improve their shot with bows...
www.lonelyplanet.com
© Lonely Planet Publications
TIMELINE
100,000–40,000 years ago
Remains of Neanderthal man found at Aman-Kutan cave
near Samarkand
2nd millennium BC
Saka/Scythian tombs in the Pamirs and the tomb of
Sarazm (western Tajikistan) date from this period
Central Asia is perhaps the best place on earth to explore the reality of the
phrase ‘the sweep of history’. Populations, conquerors, cultures and ideas
have traversed the region’s steppes, deserts and mountains for millennia.
Central Asia’s role as a conduit between cultures is symbolised by the Silk
Road, through which the great civilisations of the East and the West first
made contact. But Central Asia was, and is, more than just a middle ground,
and its cultural history is far more than the sum of the influences brought
from the East and the West.
Here in the heart of the largest landmass on earth, vast steppes provided
the one natural resource – grass – required to build one of this planet’s most
formidable and successful forms of statehood, the nomadic empire. The grass-
fed horses by the millions and mounted archers remained the unstoppable
acme of open-ground warfare for more than 2500 years. How the settled
civilisations on the periphery of Eurasia interacted with successive waves of
mounted nomadic hordes is the main theme of the story of Central Asia.
PREHISTORY & EARLY HISTORY
In the Middle Palaeolithic period, from 100,000 to 35,000 years ago, people
in Central Asia were isolated from Europe and elsewhere by ice sheets, seas
and swamps.
Cultural continuity begins in the late 3rd millennium BC with the Indo-
Iranians, speakers of an unrecorded Indo-European dialect related distantly
to English. The Indo-Iranians are believed to have passed through Central
Asia on their way from the Indo-European homeland in southern Russia.
From Central Asia, groups headed southeast for India and southwest for
Iran. These peoples herded cattle, went to battle in chariots, and prob-
ably buried their dead nobles in burial mounds (kurgans). The Tajiks are
linguistic descendants of these ancient migrants. One of these subsequent
Indo-European groups was the Sakas (also known as Scythians), who have
left kurgans, rock carvings and other remains across Central Asia. For more
Hi s to ry
For more on the Silk
Road, including
recommended books,
see p53 .
See www.orientarch.uni
-halle.de/ca/bud/bud.htm
for more on the
archaeology of
southeastern Central Asia.
UNEARTHING THE AMAZONS
As early as the 5th century BC the Greek historian Herodotus knew of an army of women war-
riors, known as the Amazons, who were so dedicated to warfare that they allegedly cut off their
own right breast in order to improve their shot with bows and arrows. Recent excavations of
Saka (Scythian)burial mounds (kurgans), on the Kazakh border with Russia, are unearthing some
intriguing links to these perhaps not-so-mythical warrior women.
Archaeologists have discovered skeletons of women, bow-legged from a life in the saddle,
buried with swords, daggers and bronze-tipped arrows, indicating warrior status. Others appear
to be priestesses, buried with cultic implements, bronze mirrors and elaborate headdresses.
The finds indicate that women of these early steppe civilisations were trained from the outset
to be warriors, fighting alongside men, perhaps even forming an elite social group. The status
of these steppe women seems far higher than that of sedentary civilisations of the same time,
challenging the stereotypical macho image of the Central Asian nomad.
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