Steppe 1.0, Going Nomad

The early Indo-Europeans' great leap forward

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Before Rome was even a city, up until the age of the gun, the heart of Asia was ruled by nomads. These lords of the steppe struck terror in the hearts of men for thousands of years, and their conquests and defeats shaped the rise and fall of empires.

This is the story of those first nomads, the early Indo-Europeans.

They herded, they rode and they routed

Today 3.5 billion humans speak Indo-European languages, which dominate Eurasia from Spain to the Indian subcontinent. This is the legacy of the pastoralists who roamed the Pontic steppe north of the Black sea 5,000 years ago. They were the original Indo-Europeans. They pioneered the nomadic lifestyle, leaving behind hard toil at the plow and thankless foraging in cold Siberian forests. They chose instead to wander the open grasslands in search of fresh pastures for their herds. They were the first to unleash young warriors raised as roving nomads upon the world, predatory packs marching the breadth of a continent in a few centuries. We don’t know what they called themselves. We don’t know the names of those who led them. But their cultural innovations and the choices they made transformed our world and made us who we are today. These nameless people left no monuments or seminal texts. Instead, we live with their language, their gods and their genes. 

These early Indo-Europeans did not rush into virgin lands. They first bowled over others who were similarly textless. So we have no written testimony of this scarcely human phenomenon steamrolling the settlements of stolid farmers whose ancestors had tilled the land for millennia. The nomads’ inexorable progress onward, onward, outward in concentric arcs, mowing down or swallowing up all who stood in their way, was marked by neither enduring architectural monuments nor ambitious infrastructure projects like Rome left those they subjugated. They came, they took, they surely slaughtered, and they clearly fathered. But with neither written words, nor enduring walls, how do we know them? 

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