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Eurasian Steppe

Updated: 2017-08-28T12:21Z
Russian steppe in the Orenburg Oblast

The Eurasian Steppe, also called the Great Steppe or the steppes, is the vast steppe ecoregion of Eurasia in the temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands biome. It stretches from Romania, Moldova through Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Xinjiang and Mongolia to Manchuria, with one major exclave located mostly in Hungary, the Puszta.[1]

From the Paleolithic, the Steppe route has connected Eastern Europe, Central Asia, China, South Asia, and the Middle East economically, politically, and culturally through overland trade routes. The Steppe route is a predecessor not only of the Silk Road which developed during antiquity and the Middle Ages, but also of the Eurasian Land Bridge in the modern era. It has been home to nomadic empires and many large tribal confederations and ancient states throughout history, such as the Xiongnu, Scythia, Cimmeria, Sarmatia, Hunnic Empire, Chorasmia, Transoxiana, Sogdiana, Xianbei, Mongols, and Göktürk Khaganate.

The Eurasian Steppe Belt (in )



A map of Eurasia with emphasis on deserts. Note the oval Tarim Basin at the center of the map.

The Eurasian Steppe extends thousands of miles from near the mouth of the Danube River almost to the Pacific Ocean. It is bounded on the north by the forests of Russia and Siberia. There is no clear southern boundary although the land becomes increasingly dry as one moves south. The steppe narrows at two points, dividing it into three major parts.

Western Steppe

The Pontic–Caspian Steppe

Ural-Caspian Narrowing

  • The Ural Mountains extend south to a point about 650 km (400 mi) northeast of the Caspian Sea. This is not a major barrier to movement, but the area near the Caspian is quite dry.

Central Steppe

The Kazakh Steppe in the north with the Tarim Basin (Takhlamakan) and Dzungaria

Dzungarian Narrowing

On the east side of the former Sino-Soviet border mountains extend north almost to the forest zone with only limited grassland in Dzungaria.

Eastern Steppe

  • Xinjiang is the northwestern province of China. The east-west Tien Shan Mountains divide it into Dzungaria in the north and the Tarim Basin to the south. Dzungaria is bounded by the Tarbagatai Mountains on the west and the Mongolian Altai Mountains on the east, neither of which is a significant barrier. Dzungaria has good grassland around the edges and a central desert. It often behaved as a westward extension of Mongolia and connected Mongolia to the Kazakh steppe. To the north of Dzungaria are mountains and the Siberian forest. To the south and west of Dzungaria, and separated from it by the Tianshan Mountains, is an area about twice the size of Dzungaria, the oval Tarim Basin. The Tarim Basin is too dry to support even a nomadic population, but around its edges rivers flow down from the mountains giving rise to a ring of cities which lived by irrigation agriculture and east-west trade. The Tarim Basin formed an island of near civilization in the center of the steppe. The Northern Silk Road went along the north and south sides of the Tarim Basin and then crossed the mountains west to the Ferghana Valley. At the west end of the basin the Pamir Mountains connect the Tien Shan Mountains to the Himalaya Mountains. To the south, the Kunlun Mountains separate the Tarim Basin from the thinly peopled Tibetan Plateau.
  • The Mongol Steppe includes both Mongolia and the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. The two are separated by a relatively dry area marked by the Gobi Desert. South of the Mongol Steppe is the high and thinly peopled Tibetan Plateau. The northern edge of the plateau is the Gansu or Hexi Corridor, a belt of moderately dense population that connects China proper with the Tarim Basin. The Hexi Corridor was the main route of the Silk Road. In the southeast the Silk Road led over some hills to the east-flowing Wei River valley which led to the North China Plain.
China and surrounding regions. Note the oval Tarim Basin, the dryer area separating Inner and Outer Mongolia and the projection of steppe into Manchuria
  • Manchuria is a special case. Westerners tend to think of Manchuria as the northeast projection of China that they see on maps. The Chinese now call this, or the eastern two thirds of it, Northeast China. The dryer western third west of the Greater Khingan Mountains has normally been part of Inner Mongolia. Before 1859, Manchuria also included Outer Manchuria to the north and east, which is now part of Russia. South of the Khingan Mountains and north of the Taihang Mountains, the Mongolian-Manchurian steppe extends east into Manchuria as the Liao Xi steppe. In Manchuria, the steppe grades off into forest and mountains without reaching the Pacific. The central area of forest-steppe was inhabited by pastoral and agricultural peoples, while to the north and east was a thin population of hunting tribes of the Siberian type.


Big mammals of the Eurasian steppe were the Przewalski's horse, the saiga antelope, the Mongolian gazelle, the goitered gazelle, the wild Bactrian camel and the onager.[2][3][4][5][6][7] The gray wolf and the corsac fox and occasionally the brown bear are predators roaming the steppe.[8][9][10] Smaller mammal species are the Mongolian gerbil, the little souslik and the bobak marmot.[11][12][13]

Furthermore the Eurasian steppe is home to a great variety of bird species. Threatened bird species living there are for example the imperial eagle, the lesser kestrel, the great bustard, the pale-back pigeon and the white-throated bushchat.[14]

The primary domesticated animals raised were sheep and goats with fewer cattle than one might expect. Camels were used in the drier areas for transport as far west as Astrakhan. There were some yaks along the edge of Tibet. The horse was used for transportation and warfare. The horse was first domesticated on the Pontic–Caspian or Kazakh steppe sometime before 3000 BC, but it took a long time for mounted archery to develop and the process is not fully understood. The stirrup does not seem to have been completely developed until 300 AD. (See Stirrup, Saddle, Composite bow, Domestication of the horse and related articles.)


The World Wide Fund for Nature divides the Euro-Asian Steppe's temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands into a number of ecoregions, distinguished by elevation, climate, rainfall, and other characteristics, and home to distinct animal and plant communities and species, and distinct habitat ecosystems.

Human activities

Trade habits

The major centers of population and high culture in Eurasia are Europe, the Middle East, India and China. For some purposes it is useful to treat Greater Iran as a separate region. All these regions are connected by the Eurasian Steppe route which was an active predecessor of the Silk Road. The later started in the Guanzhong region of China and ran west along the Hexi Corridor to the Tarim Basin. From there it went southwest to Greater Iran and turned southeast to India or west to the Middle East and Europe. A minor branch went northwest along the great rivers and north of the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. When faced with a rich caravan the steppe nomads could either rob it, or tax it, or hire themselves out as guards. Economically these three forms of taxation or parasitism amounted to the same thing. Trade was usually most vigorous when a strong empire controlled the steppe and reduced the number of petty chieftains preying on trade. The silk road first became significant and Chinese silk began reaching the Roman Empire about the time that the Emperor of Han pushed Chinese power west to the Tarim Basin.


The nomads would occasionally tolerate colonies of peasants on the steppe in the few areas where farming was possible. These were often captives who grew grain for their nomadic masters. Along the fringes there were areas that could be used for either plowland or grassland. These alternated between one and the other depending on the relative strength of the nomadic and agrarian heartlands. Over the last few hundred years, the Russian steppe and much of Inner Mongolia has been cultivated. The fact that most of the Russian steppe is not irrigated implies that it was maintained as grasslands as a result of the military strength of the nomads.


According to the most widely held hypothesis of the origin of the Indo-European languages, the Kurgan hypothesis, their common ancestor is thought to have originated on the Pontic-Caspian steppe. The Tocharians were an early Indo-European branch in the Tarim Basin. At the beginning of written history the entire steppe population west of Dzungaria spoke Iranian languages. From about 500 AD the Turkic languages replaced the Iranian languages first on the steppe, and later in the oases north of Iran (the reasons for this are poorly understood). Additionally, Hungarian speakers, a branch of the Uralic language family, who previously lived in the steppe in what is now Southern Russia, settled in the Carpathian basin in year 895. Mongolic languages are in Mongolia. In Manchuria one finds Tungusic languages and some others.


If the Kurgan hypothesis of Indo-European origins is accepted, then the earliest hypothesised steppe religion would have been the mythology of the Indo-Europeans. Later, Tangriism was introduced by Turko-Mongol nomads. Nestorianism and Manichaeism spread to the Tarim Basin and into China but they never became an established majority religion. Buddhism spread from India north to the Tarim Basin and found a new home in China. By about 1400 the entire steppe west of Dzungaria had adopted Islam. By about 1600 Islam was established in the Tarim Basin while Dzungaria and Mongolia had adopted Tibetan Buddhism.



Raids between tribes were prevalent throughout the region's history. This is connected to the ease with which a defeated enemy's flocks can be driven away, making raiding profitable. In terms of warfare and raiding, in relation to sedentary societies, the horse gave the nomads an advantage of mobility. Horsemen could raid a village and retreat with their loot before a infantry-based army could be mustered and deployed. When confronted with superior infantry, horsemen could simply ride away and retreat and regroup. Outside of Europe and parts of the Middle East, agrarian societies had difficulty raising a sufficient number of war horses, and often had to enlist them from their nomadic enemies(as mercenaries). Nomads could not easily be pursued onto the steppe since the steppe could not easily support a land army. If the Chinese sent an army into Mongolia, the nomads would flee and come back when the Chinese ran out of supplies. But the steppe nomads were relatively few and their rulers had difficulty holding together enough clans and tribes to field a large army. If they conquered an agricultural area they often lacked the skills to administer it. If they tried to hold agrarian land they gradually absorbed the civilization of their subjects, lost their nomadic skills and were either absorbed by their subjects or driven out.

Relations with neighbors

Along the northern fringe the nomads would collect tribute from and blend with the forest tribes (see Khanate of Sibir, Buryats).[citation needed] From about 1240 to 1480 Russia paid tribute to the Golden Horde.[citation needed] South of the Kazakh steppe the nomads blended with the sedentary population, partly because the Middle East has significant areas of steppe (taken by force in past invasions) and pastoralism. There was a sharp cultural divide between Mongolia and China and almost constant warfare from the dawn of history until 1757.[citation needed] The nomads collected large amounts of tribute from the Chinese and several Chinese dynasties were of steppe origin. Perhaps because of the mixture of agriculture and pastoralism in Manchuria its inhabitants knew how to deal with both nomads and the settled populations, and therefore were able to conquer much of northern China when both Chinese and Mongols were weak.

Historical peoples and nations


See also



  • John of Plano Carpini, "History of the Mongols," in Christopher Dawson, (ed.), Mission to Asia, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005, pp. 3–76.
  • Barthold, W., Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion, T. Minorsky, (tr.), New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1992.
  • Christian, David, A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia, Volume 1: Inner Eurasia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire’, Malden MA, Oxford, UK, Carlton, Australia: Blackwell Publishing 1998.
  • Fletcher, Joseph F., Studies on Chinese and Islamic Inner Asia, Beatrice Forbes Manz, (ed.), Aldershot, Hampshire: Variorum, 1995, IX.
  • Grousset, René, The Empire of the Steppes: a History of Central Asia, Naomi Walford, (tr.), New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970.
  • Krader, Lawrence, "Ecology of Central Asian Pastoralism," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 11, No. 4, (1955), pp. 301–326.
  • Lattimore, Owen, "The Geographical Factor in Mongol History," in Owen Lattimore, (ed.), Studies in Frontier History: Collected Papers 1928–1958, London: Oxford University Press, 1962, pp. 241–258.
  • Sinor, Denis, "The Inner Asian Warrior," in Denis Sinor, (Collected Studies Series), Studies in Medieval Inner Asia, Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, Variorum, 1997, XIII.
  • Sinor, Denis, "Horse and Pasture in Inner Asian History," in Denis Sinor, (Collected Studies Series), Inner Asia and its Contacts with Medieval Europe, London: Variorum, 1977, II.

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