Entering Steppelandia: pop. 7.7 billion
Why the steppe matters to me, and why it should matter to you
Whenever I write deep-dive Substack posts on genetics and human history (India, Italy, even China), I end up cutting reams of in-depth background on the steppe before I hit “publish.” Why? The Eurasian steppe is my compulsive digression. Everything canonical, everything human… makes more sense if I make sure you understand the steppe first. But too many don’t. And I fear they don’t even know what they’re missing. I want to bring my readership along on my steppe obsession, not least so that the rest of my posts will be more meaningful reads.
In that spirit, the following piece kicks off a foray deep into the Eurasian steppe and its centrality to human history, civilization and genetics. This free post is the personal why of the steppe for me. In the subsequent series of long-form, subscriber-only pieces, I’ll be expanding on the what, who and when of 5000 years of the steppe.
On a lighter note, try your hand at my two-minute “Your Steppe IQ” quiz. Legit bragging rights if you earn Khan status or make it to Steppelandia. And my best steppe reading recommendations for all who finish!
Part 1, Going Nomad, Steppe 1.0
I am haunted by the steppe. Yes, my surname comes from a Turkic language of the eastern steppe, in modern-day Mongolia. The only language I read has its ultimate origins on the steppe, among the kurgan burial-mound builders who flourished east of the Dnieper five thousand years ago. And sure, over four thousand years ago, my direct paternal ancestors were steppe pastoralists occupying lands west of the Volga. But the motives for my obsession aren’t that self-involved.
I probably don’t need to explain this to anyone who’s read me for long, but I churn through exhaustive obsessions in my readings. For example, in 1986 I read the last word I craved (or could find) on climatology, in 1987 dinosaurs, in 1988 military history, robotics and board games, in 1990 physical geography and overpopulation models, in 1993 cosmology and physics, in 1994 the Welsh, in 1995 Thomas Sowell and the history of science fiction, in 1996 Naomi Wolfe, in 1998 Luca Luigi Cavalli-Sforza and the Jewish people, in 1999 the Stoics, South Africa and Intelligent Design, goldfish in pre-9/11 2001, Salafists in post-9/11 2001, in 2003 David Hume, in 2004 Wittgenstein, in 2005 Catholicism, in 2006 R.A. Fisher, the Mormons and cognitive science of religion, in 2007 the Abbasids, in 2015 the Russians and in 2018 Critical Theory. To be sure, new contributions to a field draw me back into past passions on the regular. And certain domains I closed the book on tend to age better than others; my children regularly dismiss me among themselves: “Daddy only knows the old dinosaurs.”
But there are a few through-lines I’m never done with. Even 30 years into reading, I always feel I’m barely past the preface. In the broadest strokes, “peoples” have obsessed me since my earliest childhood. I clearly remember peppering my parents’ graduate-school acquaintances with “Which humans have the best vision?” and “Which humans are strongest?”-type questions before I could really read. And I couldn’t be born to a luckier age, because this consuming passion with human population history can now be yoked to the powerful engine of historical population genomics. I expect the riches of this field to remain inexhaustible generations after I am but dust.
Populations, population genomics and the histories of ancient nations we can infer from them, are what I live for. Which populations? No surprise that I’m never done with China or ancient Rome. But also the people of the steppe. Always the steppe. What even is the steppe? A void so under-examined, its illustrious peoples don’t even merit a single umbrella term. An expanse so vast it spans eight time zones. A word I’m disappointed to find few know and a world fewer still explore. Does any region whose influence touched empires and cultures across Europe, the Middle East and China, languish less examined?
The culture and genes of people all across the world today come from the steppe. The ancient Romans, Chinese and Arabs all have their advocates and chroniclers. They tell their story in their own voice. The Mongols may cut an impressive swath through history, but too often they see print only for the horrific deeds chronicled by their enemies. What if what we knew of the Romans only came via the Gauls after Caesar’s genocide against them? What if all that remained of Seinfeld were Wikipedia plot summaries by his vengeful antagonist Newman? What if Trump were our only observer of Obama?
Whether we are astute enough to recognize it or not, the shape of the modern world has been molded by conflict between the nomads of the Eurasian steppe and the loose arc of civilized societies that happened to lay curled around their domains. The politics, history, and geography of the steppe are critical lacunae in most grand historical narratives. The fall of the first Han Dynasty, the fall of the Roman Empire and the conquest of India by Muslims all owe to a sequence of events unleashed by Eurasian steppe nomads.
Grass from sea to shining sea
Beginning with the Great Hungarian Plain in the west, a broad ribbon of rich grassland stretches nearly unbroken across all of Eurasia to the Pacific, unfurling in infinite sameness between boreal forests to the north and arid deserts to the south. For an American kid weaned on 1980’s nature specials, my idea of vast open lands was the idyllic American prairie or the African savanna teeming with wildebeest. But the Eurasian steppe dwarfs both. The largest uninterrupted grassland ecosystem in the world, it spans 10,000 kilometers. It is more oceanic than continental in size. Even the scale of smaller subsections of this ecosystem is hard to fathom. The Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea begins on the edge of Romania and runs all the way east to the Volga river, where Europe gives way to Asia. A tarp cut from just the far eastern Mongolian reach of the steppe could casually smother all of Germany and France.
Thinking back, to arrive at my full appreciation of the importance of the steppe, I had to first get over a matter of elementary-school pedantry. The extensive color-coded maps in my beloved “biomes of the world” reference books had driven home Eurasia’s vastness. Our planet’s mega continent, Eurasia of course has the biggest biomes, chief among them the taiga, “forest” in Siberian Turkic languages. An uninterrupted expanse extending from Scandinavia to the Pacific ocean, the immense taiga is unmistakably more extensive than the steppe it parallels. Which is all very well if you are a wolf, moose, or bear and this is your prime habitat. Less so for a human.
For our Ice-Age ancestors, the open steppe may not have been much more appealing than the semi-arctic forests, but by the Holocene, human ingenuity began transforming it into a landscape of vast possibilities. It was an endless forge of potential which wrought humanity’s deadliest armies and largest empires from the roughest of barbarians. But the steppe also became an international thoroughfare, a prehistoric “information superhighway” and a literal highway, as ideas and individuals ricocheted across it from one edge to the other, sped along by a network of common cultures and lifestyles. Clearly, for humanity, the steppe was both unfathomably vast and incalculably fertile, in no important way secondary to the taiga.
Dragons of hell
With that taiga v. steppe issue out of the way, my next speed bump was who writes the history I consume. My embryonic understanding of the steppe was as the homeland of savage tribes who wantonly laid waste to great civilizations like Rome and China. I can still viscerally summon my first awareness of the terror the Huns rained down on the Goths as they erupted out of the mysterious east. This in turn triggered a rushed flight and a chain reaction of refugees streaming toward the cities of the Mediterranean, which all culminated in the fall of the Roman Empire. The 4th-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus’ comments that the Huns were a ghoulish and cruel race are etched into my brain to this day. These observations were accompanied by haunting illustrations of men with unforgiving, featureless faces hulking atop small ponies. The steppe was the dark incubator of my childhood's bogeymen.
That dire Roman view of the Huns: subhuman instruments of an angry God capable only of cruelty and avarice, was hardly unique. The centuries-long Tatar oppression under which Muscovy suffered and against which they rebelled, haunts Russian historiography. Tatars are cruel and barbaric, Russian resistors heroic. For the Muslims, Mongol brutality in the sack of Baghdad and their murder of the last Caliph, served as a cautionary warning about the harsh judgment of God against those who sin. The Muslims believed that God used the Mongols like he used plague or drought.
To hear those who outlived them tell it, the peoples of the steppe were pure forces of nature. Christians termed Atilla the Hun the “scourge of God,” reducing him to a servant of fate whose raison d’etre was to mete out punishment on God’s behalf. It served no chronicler I read to also see Attila as a leader of men, with his own ambitions and audacity. Attila and the Huns played one-dimensional bit parts in the Roman drama. They weren’t masters of their own fate.
A history hidden
To dismiss the steppe as exclusively an incubator for barbarism is like crafting your opus around a footnote. For me, the corrective came in the form of Renee Grousset’s The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. When I read this as a teen, it upended my entire view of the unlettered nomads I’d known only as villains in the histories of Rome and China. Over a magisterial 600 pages covering two millennia of the rise and fall of the nations of the Eurasian heartland, Grousset unfolds the tale usually left untold. Though his 1939 treatment goes heavy on names, places, and battles and light on social and cultural dynamics, it brings to life a whole world beyond the limits of the civilizations of cities and walls that hugged the fertile edge of the Eurasian continent. The Empire of the Steppes made explicable the recurrent motif of hordes of mounted warriors hurling themselves upon the great agricultural polities.
Grousset convinced me that the steppe and the nomadic tribes of the Eurasian heartland were not terrifying sideshows, but central actors in the great drama of world history. To wit, in 1700, the dominant states spanning the breadth of Eurasia had ruling elites with roots in the steppe. Manchu China, Mughal India, Ottoman Turkey, Safavid Iran and even Tsarist Russia, were all dominated by aristocracies stamped by nomadic empires, whether because the ruling dynasties were from the steppe, like the Ottomans and Safavids, or because they integrated steppe nobility like the Russians and the Manchus.
For me, the core insight behind this phenomenon is simply that the steppe was endowed with a critical natural resource that powered technological innovation and social complexity for over two thousand years: the horse. The domestication of the horse transformed war, ending the age of infantry and ushering in the reign of the knight. It revolutionized long-distance trade, enabling the transport of goods and people at scale from one end of Eurasia to the other, as Roman patricians demanded silk robes and Chinese mandarins patronized European acrobats. Finally, it supercharged the productivity of agriculture, driving massive population increases in farming societies. These farmers in turn powered the rise of wealthy empires, which eventually attracted the hungry gaze of the nomads beyond their frontiers, who conquered the wealthy cities only to settle down themselves and become rich targets for the next wave of nomads, in an eternal cycle of rise and fall.
The vast pastures on the steppe allowed for the maintenance of massive herds of horses. Large herds let steppe nomads select for a variety of different breeds, from the small ponies the Huns rode, to the powerful destrier mounts of the Sarmatian lancers that descended upon the Romans in the 3rd century A.D. The first Chinese foray to the west in 50 A.D. saw its delegation fail in its sole mission: procure steppe horses. With the battlefield imbalance of no horses, the nation’s capacity for war remained fatally stymied and indeed within two centuries, China fell to steppe pastoralists By a few centuries later, India had repeated this same arc of futilely coveting horses only to be conquered by Huns.
Dust in the Wind
But if the steppe looms so large in the story of our species and its development, why does it barely get a footnote? Where are all my fellow steppe-obsessed lay readers? Here, I think studying the steppe peoples brings up a fascinating aspect of historiography: when a people’s brilliance and originality translate into neither architecture nor texts, we are at great risk of underestimating or misunderstanding their contribution entirely.
The very things that freed the peoples of the steppe to harass and dominate any settled societies they wished (here I’m thinking of the shared oral culture that made confreres of warriors from all across the vast steppe, the horse-focused lifestyle of motion and action and the nomadic rootlessness and efficiency that allowed them to travel light and at lightning speed) all conspired to leave even their most sympathetic chronicler minimal primary sources. This has meant that many historical events hinge upon steppe actors who are at best drawn as shadowy stock characters. Genghis Khan and the Mongols are a great exception, but that is only because of the preservation of The Secret History of the Mongols, which contains a wealth of biographical detail that would otherwise have been lost. It only comes down to us via 15th-century copies made in Ming China.
This is not the case with most steppe-related events and individuals that had a great impact on our world. Atilla the Hun is known only through the eyes of his Roman enemies. The Huns, like all people of the steppe, preserved their history and cultural memory orally, through poems and stories passed down from generation to generation. But with their dissolution as a tribe, that rich storehouse of memory evaporated. And so, the only permanence afforded most steppe peoples is the one-sided horror they elicited in their enemies.
The Black Hole in all of us
We can't create text where none endures nor conjure physical monuments for nations who had no use for sedentary life. The detailed narrative history of the steppe is forever lost to us. But I have hope. A black hole tells no tales beyond its event horizon, but humans don’t let that keep them from studying its warping impact on the space around it. You may not be able to look into a black hole, but the chaos it induces in every direction is dramatic and measurable.
The steppe peoples of history and especially prehistory are one of our species’ great black holes, a yawning void stretched nearly the full width of our supercontinent and exerting its outsized pull on our development for over five millennia. Their legacy might not be in the most tractable format, but it’s still there for us to study.
Today nearly 50% of humans speak an Indo-European language. This owes to the explosive expansion of Yamnaya steppe pastoralists who lived 5,000 years ago. Their demographic impact is even more striking: if you were to pool living humans’ DNA, proportionally, one billion total Yamnaya descendants walk among us today. Reapportion our existing DNA into less hybrid blends and one in every eight humans is fully Yamnaya. A staggering three-quarters of us carry some portion of Yamnaya ancestry. The peoples of the steppe were a big deal. And most humans alive today are the living proof. We are the human impact of these first steppe tribes that exploded across Eurasia. Genetics now confirms this. But on a deep level, our steppe forebears are still mysterious to us. They remain forces of nature, neither vividly conjured by science, nor brought into focus by archives left for posterity. We do not even know what most of them called themselves.
Obviously, not all ancient civilizations are voiceless. Egypt’s monuments are decayed and desecrated, but the pyramids and their contents bear detailed testament to ancient values and ancient greatness. The steppe is a faint, forgotten shadow next to this. Unlike Babylon, Rome or Egypt, the steppe warriors left no relics strewn across the landscape. In China, for thousands of years, the quotidian observations and occurrences in the life of Confucius were studied by countless scholars. Confucius’ recorded life remains a living tradition 2,500 years after his time. The steppe has absolutely nothing analogous, not even an anemic shadow. And perhaps more tragically, most of us know so little about this lost civilization that gave us so much, we do not even know to lament the wholesale loss of its works and memory.
But I remain hopeful. The tools of genetics, archaeology and linguistics offer some chance of reclaiming what is lost. For someone with my passion to understand the past in its totality, beyond just the easily transmitted fragments and parroted propaganda, now is a great time to be alive. The best of the physical and biological sciences now begin to peer into the void, and with any luck create at least a skeleton of insight where before yawned only incomprehension and neglect. This is not trivial, because even 2,000 years ago the uncharted lands east of Rome and west of China were abuzz with activity, innovation, ideas and dynamism that drove great historical processes. History’s no man’s land, source of my childhood’s vacant-eyed bogeymen, went on to shape the world all around us, right down to our very DNA, with epic human outcomes from Europe’s Black Death to the lingua franca in which I write these words.
My name is Razib Khan and I am haunted by the steppe. Some of my other obsessions are undeniably weird and idiosyncratic; those have a way of running themselves out. But the steppe and its voiceless peoples are a different matter. The steppe has stalked me for three decades. It’s in my DNA, it’s in the only languages I speak, it’s in the marvels of mass society, transport and civilization that all allow me to live the life of the mind. If the whole world is Steppelandia, let’s find out what that really means.
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