Sustenance in the Hungry Steppe: The emergence of proto-urban centers in central Eurasia

The pervasive narrative of the rise of a nomadic warrior culture in the Eurasian steppe at the end of the Bronze Age has muted growing evidence for settled communities and proto-urban centers. Mounting evidence suggests that aggregated populations were occupying the semi-arid Kazakh steppe in a cluster of neighboring regional centers. The growth of large settlements in central Kazakhstan dating to the Final Bronze Age (1500-1300 cal BC) counter notions of extensive nomadism. The semi-arid steppe, known colloquially as the ‘hungry steppe’, is a region where mobile pastoralism is considered a necessity. Thus, evidence for densely populated regional centers in prehistory raise questions about the subsistence economies of these communities.

The hungry steppe is a relatively unproductive landscape that has proved inhospitable both in prehistoric and historic periods. During Soviet collectivization a famine occurred in the hungry steppe as Kazakhs were forced to settle, resulting in decreased herd sizes that could not sustain local populations. While the region supports a relatively low human population in the modern period, archaeological remains demonstrate that it sustained populations in the hundreds or even thousands in the final Bronze Age. This project therefore engages with modern analogs of pastoral lifeways and rangeland management to explore the resilient nature of ancient pastoral strategies and the resources necessary to sustain large settled populations.

Proto-urban settlements in central Kazakhstan have been interpreted as social and economic oases that served to draw in populations from the broader region. The unique confluences of topographic and environmental factors mark these locations as loci of diverse resource availability. Permanent habitation sites of pastoralists are often emphasized as nodes of economic and social engagements, while the areas just outside of habitation zones at regional centers may have functioned as areas for gardening, corrals, and refuse disposal. Recent zooarchaeological and geometric morphometric findings indicate that herds from the nearby site of Kent were specifically adapted to local micro-regions with little evidence for long distance migration circuits or admixture of livestock populations. Further, isotopic evidence from sequentially sampled sheep teeth indicate that foddering was a consistent strategy for managing livestock. Whether aggregated communities utilized expanded trade networks to gain access to cultigens for consumption, or for cultivation, continues to be unclear. The aim of our project is to demonstrate the resilient strategies used by pastoral groups in prehistory through investigation of a regional center in central Kazakhstan. Initial fieldwork is a four-pronged approach to the site, including geophysical prospection, test excavation, biosphere survey, and post-excavation analyses.

Related Publications

Ventresca Miller, A., A. Haruda, V. Varfolomeev, A. Goryachev, and C. Makarewicz, in preparation. Close management of sheep diets by nomadic pastoralists in the Central Asian steppe: Sequential carbon (δ13C) and oxygen (δ18O) isotope a Final Bronze Age, Kent and Turgen.

Varfolomeev, V. 2003. Kent and its District: Some Results of Socio-cultural Analysis of Eastern Saryarki sites (Кент и его округа: некоторые итоги социокультурного анализа памятников Восточной Сарыарки). In Steppe Civilizations of Eastern Eurasia. Astana, pg. 88–99 (in Russian).

Varfolomeev, V. 2011a. Kent – the city of the Bronze Age (Кент – город бронзового века). In New research in the era of Independence // Witness the Millennia: Archaeological Science in Kazakhstan for the past 20 years (1991-2011). – Almaty, pg. 85-97 (in Russian).

Varfolomeev, V. 2011b. Begazy-Dandybaevskii Phenomena: Kulture and Subculture (Бегазы-дандыбаевский феномен: культура и субкультура). In Margulanovskie Reader // Material from the International Archaeological Conference. Astana, pg. 49-51 (in Russian).


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