Nomads first appeared in the steppe towards the beginning of the 1st millennium B.G. and in the next 500 years completely replaced pastoral population. The European and Asian steppe and forest-steppe zone were thus for more than three thousand years turned into a nomad area.
Nomadism, according to modern ethnographers, is characterised by a producing economy based on extensive cattle-breeding, with most of the population roaming with their herds all year round. This definition, however, concerns only the economic aspect of nomadism, for nomadism is more than an economic system. It is a way of life, with its own material and spiritual culture and religious beliefs, social and political history.
A study of nomadism in its totality or of its individual aspects will reveal law-governed regularities equally applicable to any nomad community. We can thus group, for the purpose of comparison, different peoples and ethnoses which roamed the steppe at different periods.
The purpose of this book is to disclose these regularities and to construct, on their basis, certain socio-ethnic and cultural models of the different stages of economic development.
Ethnographers now identify three types of the nomad economy: complete nomad economy with no forms of agriculture or settled way of life; semi-nomad economy with permanent winter camps and partial stockpiling of fodder; semi-nomad economy, with parallel existence of agriculture and settled way of life. Each type had its own pattern of social relations: ail-communal social relations, and in the third, class relations.
Let us examine the complete nomad type, which may be called the tabor type, no longer extant in the Eurasian steppe. Yearround mobile pasturing remains an unavoidable form of cattle-breeding only in the especially arid Cicumcaspian and Mongolian steppe and semi-deserts. There the cattle can be fed only by moving the herds from one meagre pasture to another.
In the Middle Ages lengthy droughts and frosty winters lorced the nomads to seek new pastures. The search was often a long and tortuous process, and in these conditions the tabor economy was the only possible choice.
The need for new territories for pasture and battue hunting made warriors of the nomads, for no people would cede their territory voluntarily. Nomad invasions were aimed at the seizure of a territory through the complete or partial annihilation of its population. In some cases part of the conquered people would be incorporated into the nomad community. The invasions involved the entire nomad population, men, women, children, old and young (young women joined the ranks of mounted warriors) with their herds and tents. At this stage termed «military democracy» by the classics of Marxism, the socio-political structure took the form of conglomerations of the tribal-union type, usually led by active members of influential and rich clans, one of which had initiated the invasion.
As a rule, the armed drive for new lands originated in a limited steppe region and was the result of events that made it inevitable. Most of the population mounted their horses or followed the warriors in covered carts, carrying with them their property and leading their herds. At the start, the population usually belonged to one ethnic and linguistic group compact enough to be considered an ethnic community, but one in a state of constant division into related ethnic groups.
Such detached groups began to roam the steppe on their own in search of «vacant» territory, i. е., occupied by a military weaker ethnos. The advancing hordes would, on their way, conquer, ruin and absorb parts of tribes and ethnoses. Thus, the prerequisites were created for the formation of a new ethnic community, and, above all, of a new socio-political conglomeration. The same applied to material culture: every group was a bearer of the «material culture» which practically disappeared in the long and tortuous wanderings, hard-fought battles and cultural assimilation. Only military innovations which had brought victories to the conquerors remained unchanged.
A new syncretic culture was formed, a blend of many disparate cultures and influences.
What remains to the archaeologist of the early nomad culture? This multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual conglomeration of tribes and hordes, tied into tribal and horde unions by their leaders, continuously roved the vast hostile steppe. They had neither permanent winter camps where cultural layers may be found nor permanent clan burial grounds. Usually they buried their dead in mounds, common in steppe, left over from previous epochs (the so-called secondary burials), or in thoroughly concealed ground burials. The custom of concealing burials was followed by the nomad nobility up to the 13th century. The tabor period has left the archaeologist single burials in the steppe, seldom intact, which one can come across only by chance, though precisely these burials yield interesting information: different burial rites testify to patchy ethnic patterns; «equal» burial complexes (with the exception of the gold-covered burials of chieftains) testify to the prevalence of the military democracy.
There is no doubt hat this stage was common to all the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppe. Unfortunately, historical sources concerning the nomads at this initial stage are of a scanty, fragmentary and, very often, distorted character: an avalan eh of nomads destroying everything on its way gave rise to hatred and horror, rather than ethnographic interest.
The seizure of new lands was followed by adjustment of relations with the conquered tribes and neighbouring states and peoples. This ushered in the next period, a «period of finding a new homeland», and this entailed economic development of the seized territory. Pasture lands were allotted to each tribe and clan, according to their sizes, and permanent seasonal camps were established. At first, the alloted territories were large, accomodating a large, usually consanguineal collective. It was called kuren by B. Ya. Vladimirtsov and the corresponding economic type — kuren economy. The rise of the kurens marked the beginning of the decay of the clan-tribal society. This process started within the framework of the military democracy and further developed in the early class society.
Consolidation of class relations, the impoverishment of common nomads and the concentration of wealth in the hands of individual families, led to the division of the kuren communities into smaller economic units. The first to leave the kurens were the rich families with their kinsmen and large herds. These smaller economic units are termed ails. Very often the ails were also fairly large as rich families were joined by poorer ones. Having not enough cattle to roam by themselves, poor people pastured the cattle of the rich, receiving payment in kind or, which was an important development, changed over to agriculture.
Thus, the first period of the second stage of nomadism was characterised by kuren roaming, while the second period — by ail roaming. Military democracy gave way to early class society marked by extreme patriarchality unknown to settled peoples. The patriarchal system enabled the rich (the clan nobility) to mask their tendencies to absolute power. The more influential and rich aristocrats were «elected», according to an ancient custom, leaders (khans) of large conglomerations and simultaneously became supreme priests. A basically new form of conglomeration of a number of independent ails arose on the former kuren territory. Such conglomerations came to be known as «horde». Their essence was everywhere the same — they were agglomerations of non-consanguineal families and even included alien elements. Kurens and hordes were always ready to start military actions (the character of which had changed markedly) provided there were enough warriors, for at the second stage of nomadism wars were waged by warriors, and not by the entire population as at the first stage. Women, children, old men, the horseless poor and domestic slaves comprising a large part of the ail population were not directly involved. Wars were now fought not for more pasturage, but for booty, slaves and the rich ransom imposed on a defeated enemy.
The nomads were confined to limited territory and gradually settled in their winter camps, where they frequently stored their considerable treasures. They thus became easy prey for their neighbours. Raids, known in the steppe as baranta, organised by neighbouring ails and hordes against each other, undermined their economy and impoverished the bulk of the cattle-breeders.
This situation of constant danger and uncertainty and the emergence of economically stronger and politically more powerful ails and hordes, created the vital necessity for large unifying organisations capable of regulating, albeit to a minimum degree, the external and internal policies of the steppe peoples. Such organisations took the form of horde unions, the prototype of the state or of state-type conglomeration, ruled by khans elected by the nobility from among the richest and most active elements. Their main functions were settlement of foreing policy problems (alliances with more developed states, organisation of large-scale raids) and prevention of internal strife and internecine wars. All this united ails and hordes around the khans.
On the whole, these conglomerations were more like tribal unions of the first stage of nomadism rather than states, for there was neither a regular army (the army was formed of volunteers), nor an administrative apparatus (judiciary, police, tax collectors), nor a tax system. Nevertheless, these were often far-flung and powerful conglomerations, usually referred to as empires in written sources. They owe their origins, first, to favourable historical conditions and, second, to the personality of the khan, his wisdom and energy, military skill, political shrewdness, diplomatic dexterity and ruthlessness towards his enemies. But the empire rested on the will of one man, the khan. His death would set off centrifugal tendencies, discord and internecine wars. The empire gradually disintegrated until it vanished from the chonicles and later from the face of the earth. In spite of this, the second-stage conglomerations became the cradle of a unified common culture, a unified world outlook and a common language.
Large amorphous first-stage communities were sociopolitical conglomerations. At the second stage they gradually acquired common ethnic features, the dominant among ones being language and culture. They thus contributed to the emergence of ethnic communities — the prototypes of peoples.
Archaeological monuments of this period differ considerably form earlier ones. Permanent seasonal camps on the territory of an ail or a horde where traces of human activity were discovered (broken artifacts, pottery, bones) and permanent burial grounds nearby, where the dead were buried in graves with small stone or earthern mounds provide valid archaeological material. Besides, the steppe people began building ancestor cult sanctuaries during the patriarchal-clan period, and of the military leader cult in the period of the disintegration of tribal-clan relations.
The second stage of nomadism is the most typical of cattle-breeding economy.
Primary forms of the settled way of life emerged as a result of limited pasture areas, which necessitated permanent seasonal camps. The population left behind in the winter camps during wars turned to agriculture, planting melons, cereals, even starting orchards. They acquired agricultural implements from their settled neighbours, at first by simply taking them away during raids, then changing them for products of their labour. Finally they started making similar implements themselves, evidence of an advanced stage of social and economic development.
With the appearance of permanent settlements, the rich began to isolate their homes with walls and moats. They stationed their ails on naturally fortified terrain, such as river banks or hills, turning them into a kind of steppe castle. These were winter residencies; in summe their owners roamed the steppe. With time settlements arose around the castles, steppe towns that were to become administrative, handicrafts and trading centres. Naturally, not every castle developed into a town; much depended on its geogrephic location (at a crossroads, on the seashore) and on the political influence of the owner, his ability to protect the neighbouring steppe population.
Agriculture and a settled way of life brought with them crafts and, hence a new material culture which, while remaining syncretic, already had its own identity. The new, unified culture, internal trade and the rudiments of government stimulated the dissemination and consolidation of a common spoken language, and the development also of a written language on an original or a borrowed basis. These were all signposts on the road to statehood.
In the early state, the aristocratic element became the feudal nobility. In keeping with an ancient nomad custom the head of state was elected at assemblies of the nobility, but candidates were chosen from the ruling clan, usually a relative (brother, son) of the desceased ruler: state power had acquired a heritary character. Next came the bureaucratic machinery (judges, tax collectors, police) and, more important, a regular army (supplemented by detachments the feudal lords were under obligation to provide in times of war). And the nature of wars had changed: they were no longer invasions or raids, but pursued political aims. Conquered regions were not plundered, heavy indemnities were imposed and they were incorporated in the state. Political alliances with neighbouring states and joint wars againts common enemies (armies of semi-nomad states were no longer mercenaries but allies) helped to strengthen a country's international status.
More or less organised states of the third stage of nomadism are known from written sources as kaganats and their rulers as kagans. Ethnic consolidation processes which had began at the second stage became more pronounced at the third. For in well-organised kaganats conditions favoured the gradual formation of a people out of different ethnic groups. Not infrequently the ruling clan, though not ethnic majority of the kaganat, gave its name to the state and the maturing ethnic communities; in other cases the ethnonym was derived from the name of the biggest ethnic group.
A unified ideology in the form of a state religion shared by all the population of the state played a major role, together with the material culture, in the state and, hence, in ethnic consolidation. Centralisation in the religious sphere took a form of the Tenghri-Khan (God of Heaven) cult, which for some time coexisted with the leader cult, the cult of famous ancestors or of legendary heroes inherited from the second stage. A new social group, the priests, arose in all class states, and the world regions (Islam, Christianity and others) with their dominating image of a single God, gained ground in all communities.
Though the kaganats were the subject of many works by Mediaeval authors, and historical documents in their languages are not infrequently met with, the main source for the study of their culture and history are archaeological monuments. And these are not only the rare remains of first and second stage winter camps and burial grounds spread over the endless steppe, but also a wide variety of monuments presenting a broad picture of the economic and cultural life. First of all, there are the remains of large settlements, their cultural layers abounding in pottery sherds and bones, remnants of dwellings and their auxiliary biuldings. Most of these communities were in areas suitable for crop farming and gardening. They formed groups with common centres, a castle or a town surrounded by a network of irrigation canals. These are described in ancient sources as typical of many arid steppe regions.
Social, political and ethnic processes characteristic of the emergence and consolidation of the steppe states are strikingly uniform despite chronological and regional differences. The same may be said of the decay and disintegration processes, the causes of which can be classified into four groups.
The first group — external political causes, i. е., defeat in a war with a more powerful neighbour with resultant economic devastation — ruined crops, stolen herds, burned settlements.
The second group — internal political causes, i. е., internal strife expanding with the growth of the state as the feudal lords seek independence of the central power, which inevitably leads first to disorganisation and then to utter collapse. The feudal and clan nobility, the bulk of the military forces, perished in the ceaseless feuds. Some of these grew into economically ruinous civil wars in which the feudal lords were joined by common people.
The third group — natural climate causes, i. е., unpredictable climatic changes which brought prolonged droughts or very cold winters both of which destroyed eros and cattle, with all the other misfortunes this entailed.
The fourth group had, at first glance, nothing in common with the first three. Economic affluence led to a «population explosion» forcing part of the people to migrate to other areas. This, too, was a cause of disintegration of the state.
The crisis precipitated by the interplay of these causes and imperceptibly prepared by the all previous development, would bring on the collapse and disappearance of. even the mightiest empires. The concrete variant of the process depended on the prevalence of one or another cause.
The first variant. Economic ruin following an invasion forces the most active part of the population led by bold and adventurous leaders, launch out on the conquest of new lands. Those who stayed behind often formed the ethnic core of the state of the conquerors. The ethnonym of the defeated thus belonged to those who had left and in due time a new state conglomeration would be formed bearing this name. Thus the ethnic community continued to figure in political life und in the annals of history.
The second variant. Most; of the population had perished in the war and there could be no question of starting a crusade to seize new lands, the remaining population simply submitted to the occupants. Only an insignificant part, unwilling to live under enemy rule, sought asylum in neighbouring or even far-away states. The bulk of the population, deprived of best lands, political influence and its ethnonym, coexisted with the conquerors, undergoing a process of mutual assimilation.
The third variant. The vanquished state was incorporated into the victor state, the population being made to pay more or less heavy indemnities. The defeated state or state conglomeration lost its independence, but the surviving population, completely demoralised by the loss of the army (the young and active generation) and by the ignominous defeat, made the best of life under enemy rule. This was less painful when the defeated and the victors differed but little ethnically, and the population retained its culture and preserved its ethnic identity. This was, a factor in its subsequent development into peoples holding a definite place in history.
The fourth variant. Due to internal strife and internecine wars huge empires disintegrated into smaller states usually headed by members of the ruling clan of the parental empire. Such states were characterised by intensive cultural and ethnic-formation processes.
The purpose of this classification of the developmental processes typical of the Mediaeval steppe conglomerations is to reveal common regularities. All economic, social, ethnic and cultural phenomena in the nomad conglomerations may be presented as a solid chain — a socio-economic model of various phenomena or specific features. As it is practically impossible to form a complete picture of any steppe ethnic or state formation from historical sources, such socio-economic models help to produce a more or less true reconstruction of the life of dozens of steppe societies formerly unknown to historians.
It is quite possible that these regularities were typical not only of Mediaeval, but also of earlier and later nomad communities spanning the period from their appearance in the steppe up to the 20th century.
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