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Bronze Age in Central Asia

Many major cultural and technological changes that laid the foundations for a social and material web that linked ancient societies across Eurasia took place in the Bronze Age.  Wheat, Copper, Millet, Sheep and Cattle laid the foundation for civilization to develop.

Wheat, barley and oat agriculture is almost universally accepted as having originated in the west. Domestic cattle and sheep show complex origins with earliest evidence in the west.

The oldest evidence for broomcorn millet agriculture is in the east. However, all of these things had become relatively commonplace in both east and west by 2000 BC.

The idea that copper smelting was not invented in China is a relatively new one but is increasingly accepted by Chinese archaeologists.

Evidence of wheat, copper and millet gives clues to the first connections between West and East were made in the Bronze Age and archaeologists are finding clues of the specific routes that were taken. A current best guess is for a steppe connection at the beginning of the third millennium BC (3000 BCE) and a ‘silk road’ connection at the end of the 3rd millennium (2000 BCE).  However, a much earlier connection (the sixth millennium BC) is still arguable.

The problem for archaeologists is to decide whether pre 2000BC evidence of common features is due to independent invention in the east and west or due to earlier connections between them. If the latter then when were these connections made and by what routes?

Encompassing a large portion of the Eurasian landmass, Central Asia stretches from the vast Russian and Kazakh steppes and mountain foothills, southward to the intersecting mountain, foothill, and desert regions of northern Afghanistan, Turkmenistan.   Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazahkstan. Various herding, farming, and foraging societies took shape across this ecological mosaic, during the third and second millenniums BCE.

Connecting China to Europe in the Bronze Age
Central Asia Connected China to Europe as Early as the Bronze Age

There is evidence for a multiregional interaction, economy, and material culture assemblages of Bronze Age Central Asia,  The archaeological records of northern and southern Central Asia are quite different,

Despite its geographically dispersed archaeological landscape, multiregional interaction is a defining feature of the Central Asian Bronze Age. Dynamic transregional connections and exchange in the region is shown most clearly through its second millennium BC metallurgical invention, horse riding and chariot technology, and geographic transport of crops between China and Southwest Asia

Archaeological discoveries made over the past ten years, however, demonstrate that a regional web of interaction and technology transfer was in place earlier on, during the third millennium BC . (3000 – 2001 BCE)

These discoveries are the result of a growing number of archaeometric dates, settlement excavations with multi-period stratified cultural deposits, site survey and mapping, and scientific studies of diet and exchange. The emergence and nature of Eurasian pastoralism, the pastoral/agricultural and mobile/sedentary dichotomy, and local material traditions and exchange are being studied today an new discoveries are made every year.

Northern Central Asia Bronze Age

Northern Central Asia figures prominently in studies on the spread and development of regional pastoralism.  Conventionally understood as a “pastoral realm,” small villages and seasonal campsites, stone-lined burials called Kagan and rock art (see my post) have been principal areas of research investigations there for over a century.

The nucleated, fortified settlements of the Sintashta complex located in the southern Urals in Russia is an exception to the major architectural characteristics of village life the region’s built environment

Based on Stylistic assessments of pottery and their ordering into culture-histories, the predominant narative  of northern Central Asia has been an image of a “pastoral realm,” with animals comprising the major diet of herding populations. Conventional models on the origins and spread of herding societies into northern Central Asia propose that climate change and population pressure were catalysts for eastward migrations across the steppe in the Bronze Age—resulting in broad social and economic cohesion across the continent by the mid-second millennium BC.

Within the historical-materialist epistemology of Soviet archaeology, migration and diffusion were the predominant explanations for producing distinctly common material complexes over broad geographic areas.  The thinking was shared artifact assemblages—such as Andronovo style ceramics—indicated the presence of a single ethnic group and changes in material culture were approximated with ethnic transformation.

Early Bronze Age in Northern Central Asia

The Early Bronze Age in northern Central Asia dates from approximately 3200 to 2400 BC, with some cultural groupings bridging the Eneolothic (ca. 3500 BC) to Bronze Age transition . This period is associated with an economic shift to animal pastoralism and mixed economies in various locations of the Eurasian steppe. The emergence of specialized pastoral economies in northern Central Asia is traditionally linked to a single center of domestication in western Eurasia  although more recent radiocarbon dates obtained for the eastern steppe suggest that pastorialism developed independently in the Central Steppe

Pastoral populations focused on the rearing of sheep, goat, and cattle include Yamnaya groups (ca. 3000–2600 BC) around the Caspian Sea region, Catacomb culture (ca. 2600 BC) sites in the trans-Caucasus  and the Afanas’evo (ca. 3200–2500 BC) and Okunev groups (ca. 2500–1700 BC) around the Minusinsk and Yenesei Basins of the eastern Eurasian steppe zone.

Pastoral campsites (dating no earlier than 2800 BC) are also found further south in southeastern Kazakhstan . Northern Eurasia is home to pastoral groups of the Botai and Tersek cultures (ca. 3600–2500 BC), with their sites spanning the Tobol and Irtysh river basins or northern Kazakhstan and Siberia.

Middle Bronze Age in Northern Central Asia

The Middle Bronze Age (2500–1900 BC) in northern Central Asia signifies a shift to more intensive cattle and sheep/goat herding  The horse-based economies of the earlier Botai/Tersek sites are replaced by pastoral groups focused on herding sheep, goat, cattle, and horses. Key areas of research for this period include the Sintashta settlements, or “country of towns,” comprising multiple large fortified centers and elaborate burials in the southern Ural Mountain area of Russia, and the slightly later Petrovka culture sites nearby.

. On the eastern end of the Eurasian steppe, Okunev and Kanay culture sites also continue into the Middle Bronze Age. These Middle Bronze Age groups were supported by a herding economy, with no direct evidence for agriculture. Importantly, bronze metallurgy , wheeled chariots, and elaborate horse burials  that appear in this period are likely key factors that contribute to widespread regional interaction and technological innovations of the ensuing second millennium BC.


Begash in an archaeological site in the Koksu River valley in historic Zhetysu, Kazazkstan. The site is situated in piedmont steppes above the Zhalgyzagash River, a tributary of the Koksu River. The people of Begash were transhumant pastoralists who mainly herded sheep and goats. They likely used the site primarily as a place of winter residence. The people of Begash buried their dead first in cist and later in kurgan burials (See my Post Kurgans)

So far, the earliest direct evidence for domesticated grains in Central Asia can be found at Begash, with the earliest evidence for the presence of both domesticated free-threshing wheat (from West Asia) and broomcorn millet (from East Asia)

Direct AMS dating of broomcorn millet and wheat seeds from Begash date to around 2460-2150 BCE.   Most of the seeds were recovered from cist burials, with very few seeds being recovered from hearths. As almost all of the seeds came from burial contexts, the domesticated wheat and millet was most likely primarily used only for ritual purposes.

The early wheat seeds from Begash were small, compact and round. The seeds are morphologically similar to modern Indian dwarf wheat and were similar to the seeds found in early China. The domesticated grains at Begash were not cultivated locally and were likely obtained through trade. Located near the Dzungarian Alatau, Begash is situated along the way on what is described as the “wheat road”, a route of likely transmission of wheat and other goods from Western Asia to China

Starting from the earliest period at Begash, sheep and goat remains were found most frequently, and remained the primary animal remains found at Begash throughout its entire history. Over time, cattle slowly began to increase and eventually became the third most commonly found domesticated animal remains at Begash. Surprisingly, the presence of horse remains remained rather low at Begash throughout its history,

Pastorialism continues to be an important part of the economy in the high mountain valleys of Kyrgyzstan.  These pastorialists are in Altyn Arashan (Golden Spa), a valley and mountain resort near Karakol along the trekking route from Ak-Suu.  It is a hot spring development set in an alpine valley, containing the 5020 metre Pik Palatka . Beautiful Lake Ala Kul is a trek away.   (See my page Issyk Kul Region Adventure for details)

Begash continued to be occupied through out the Iron Age and settlement returned to the location at multiple times.  Phase 5 ended in 1410 . Phases 1a and 1b were in the Bronze Age:

  • Begash phase 1a (2460-1950 BC): this is the earliest period, dating from the Middle Bronze Age. A stone structure was found from this period. The first burials, coming from this period, were cist burials. The domesticated animal remains came overwhelming from sheep and goats, with some coming from cattle. Wheat and broomcorn millet seeds were first found from this period.
  • Begash phase 1b (1950-1690 BC): this layer dates from the Late Bronze Age. The domesticated animal remains came from sheep, goats, cattle, horses and dogs.


The Late/Final Bronze Age in Northern Central Asia

By the Late/Final Bronze Age (1900/ – 1000 BCE), specialized pastoral economies extend across northern Central Asia from the Ural to the Tian Shan Mountains ). This period is associated with a widespread economic shift to animal pastoralism, along with the emergence of agriculture in mountain settings of northern Central Asia . The “Andronovo cultural community”—the canonical epistemological apparatus for organizing the material assemblages of the second millennium BC of Central Asia —is archaeologically represented by regionally similar styles of domestic and ritual architecture, burial traditions, and styles of bronze and ceramic objects. Andronovo material assemblages are the principal evidence for identifying the multiregional emergence of groups generally reliant on domesticated cattle, sheep, goat, and horse.

The history of archaeological research on the Andronovo cultural community extends back over a century to the late 1800s when archaeologists were finding handmade ceramic jars with linear, incised, or stamped ornamentation at excavations of cemeteries located in the southern Ural Mountains, the Kazakh steppes, and southern Siberia . The formal similarities among these objects were not emphasized or significantly noted during those early exploratory years. It was not until the first decades of Soviet archaeological growth that Teploukhov (1927) then created the term “Andronovo culture” to define what he saw as a distinct archaeological assemblage originating in the Minusinsk Basin of Russia, with Gryaznov (1927)  then outlining the territorial extent of sites across central Eurasia/Central Asia.

After decades of debate about the regional relationships evident within a growing assemblage of pots, burials, and bronze artifacts  the prominent Soviet archaeologist Elena Kuz’mina (1986) organized the vast array of material collections into the overarching culture history, with a number of regional variants (e.g., Alakul’ and Fedorovo cultures) or subgroups (e.g., Atasu or Nurinsky cultures) defined within discrete geographic areas of Central Asia. The categories achieve a distinction between various and so-called pure (e.g., Fedorovo culture) and mixed (e.g., Semirech’ye culture) ethnic/subgroups belonging to the larger “Andronovo cultural community” .

Although many scholars interpret the broad geographic spread of Andronovo archaeological complexes as the product of regional migrations, there is little agreement about the timing and direction of population movements . Some scholars  connect the Andronovo culture expansion to an outward spread starting in the southern Urals in the Bronze Age, whereas others alternatively place its origins in the Eneolithic of central Kazakhstan. A different perspective locates the starting point of migrations in the Altai Mountains over the course of the Neolithic and Bronze Age , with others proposing a polyphyletic tradition . More recent contributions to this topic come from a gene sequencing project that has used prehistoric human samples to the north of Central Asia proper.


Southern Central Asia Bronze Age

By contrast, southern Central Asia is home to large fortified centers, smaller sedentary villages, and pastoral campsites, making it a key zone for charting mobile and sedentary interactions through time. These two contrasting, yet intersecting, prehistories were integral to multiregional exchange, culture contact, and technology transfer, which irreversibly altered the social trajectories of societies from Europe to China in prehistory.

The Middle Bronze Age fortified centers of the Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex of southern Central Asia  is a stand out .

The natural setting of southern Central Asia contains a vast array of microenvironments, including snowcapped mountains, oases, arid deserts, and steppe grasslands. The region’s intercontinental climate causes extreme contrasts in winter and summer temperatures and precipitation that made settling along the river courses and oases preferable in antiquity.

The archaeological remnants of southern Central Asia’s Bronze Age host three distinct material culture assemblages, which distinguish it from the archaeological landscape of pastoralists in northern Central Asia.

  •  Early Bronze Age villages, such as Sarazm
  • Middle Bronze Age fortified agrarian settlements of the Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), or Oxus Civilization and surrounding agrarian settlements;
  • Late/Final Bronze Age foothill settlements and pastoral campsites with ephemeral architecture dispersed along the desert edge of zones with sedentary habitation

Since the late 1800s, archaeological investigations in the region have achieved extensive mapping of Bronze Age fortified towns, villages, and campsites. Following this initial exploratory chapter, in the twentieth century during the phase of Soviet rule, scholars drew from the Marxist paradigm to reconstruct the economic practices, technology, social organization, and ideological behaviors of its ancient populations .

The stone-lined burials belonging to its nomadic pastoral populations have been excavated quite extensively.  Habitation sites of the mobile groups lack equal documentation, partly because they are less archaeologically visible but also because nomadism (i.e., pastoralism) did not fit within the schema of progressive social evolution for Marxist-Soviet interpretations of history.

Early Bronze Age in Southern Central Asia

The Early Bronze Age (ca. 3500–2300 BC) in southern Central Asia comprises a small number of sedentary village sites, such as Sarazm in Tajikistan, which is known for early metallurgy, painted pottery, and a mixed agropastoral economy ). Located in the foothill zone (900 masl) of the Zerafshan valley, the fourth/third millennium BC village forms the easternmost end of a chain of agricultural villages (Namazga), such as Djeitun, that stretched from the Kopet Dag foothills to the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan.

The domestic economy of Sarazm included sheep- and goat-based pastoralism along with the production of multiple domestic crop species. The economy is considered a later extension of the “Southwest Asian agricultural complex” that is argued to have entered southern Central Asia from the Iranian Plateau during the Neolithic.


Middle Bronze Age in Southern Central Asia

The initial and peak phases of the BMAC occurred during the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2300–1800 BC), which is seen as a period of far-reaching regional contacts and trade between Central Asia, the Arabian Gulf, the Indus Valley, and Iran .

Large-scale excavations of key BMAC sedentary towns and villages such as Gonur, Togolok, and Kelleli-tepe located in modern-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan have been conducted since the 1970’s.

The urban centers mark the earliest known such occupation in southern Central Asia, with no known evidence for major populations residing in the region prior. As a result, the BMAC emergence is also linked to a process of in-migration from the Kopet Dagh piedmont zone of eastern Iran . The internal organization and sociopolitical structure of the Middle Bronze Age has been characterized under numerous forms of hierarchical systems of rulership but beyond this classification, its exact political structure remains unclear.

The noted trade networks and social contacts between southern Central Asia and neighboring regions saw their greatest reach during the late-third millennium BC, as shown by the presence of prestigious and exotic goods in settlements that define a long interaction with early centers of civilization in the Near East, China, and India  and through participation in a geographically broad funerary tradition that also demonstrates ideological links with societies of Sintashta sites to the north in the Trans-Urals . Whether the wide geographic distribution of material artifacts in the Middle Bronze Age is a product of direct contacts, technology transfer, or localized exchanges remains an open question.nur


Gonur,in the Kars Kum desert of  Turkmenistan was once the heart of a vast archipelago of settlements that stretched across 1,000 square miles of Central Asian plains. Although unknown to most Western scholars, this ancient civilization dates back 4,000 years—to the time when the first great societies along the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Indus, and Yellow rivers were flourishing.

Thousands of people lived in towns like Gonur with carefully designed streets, drains, temples, and homes. To water their orchards and fields, they dug lengthy canals to channel glacier-fed rivers that were impervious to drought. They traded with distant cities for ivory, gold, and silver, creating what may have been the first commercial link between the East and the West. They buried their dead in elaborate graves filled with fine jewelry, wheeled carts, and animal sacrifices. Then, within a few centuries, they vanished.
Gonur Tepe is an archaeological site located about 60 km north of Mary (ancient Merv), Turkmenistan consisting of a large early Bronze Age settlement. It is the “capital” or major settlement of the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) dated from 2200-1700 BCE.[1]

The site was discovered in the 1950s by Greek-Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi, and excavated in the 1970s. Sarianidi uncovered a palace, a fortified mud-brick enclosure, and temples with fire altars which he associated with the Zoroastrian religion. ] He also found what appears to be the boiler for the ritual drink soma, which is mentioned in the Rigveda and also in the Avesta as haoma. Sarianidi says he also found dishes with traces of cannabis, poppy and ephedra. According to Sarianidi,[year needed] this discovery strengthens the theory that these were the ingredients of soma. Mallory (1997) points out that the BMAC fortified settlements such as Gonur and Togolok resemble the qila, the type of fort known in this region in the historical period. They may be circular or rectangular and have up to three encircling walls. Within the forts are residential quarters, workshops and temples.[3]
Part of the Gonur Tepe ruins, 2011
There were increasing incursions of nomadic encampments of the Andronovo culture at the site during the period 1800-1500 BCE. According to Lamberg-Karlovsky, presence of Andronovo pottery at Gonur, the characteristic ceramics of the Eurasian steppes where the modern horse was domesticated, certainly implies that the horse was known to the BMAC. However, Sarianidi disregards the steppe connection for the presence of the horse in BMAC.[1]

The northern part of the complex had a central citadel-like structure about 100 by 180 m (330 by 590 ft) in size. A southern complex is about 1.5 hectares in size. Gonur is among the largest ruins in the Morghab delta region; over 150 ancient settlements have been found there, on a total area of some about 55 hectares, dating between the early Neolithic (7th millennium BC) and the early Bronze Age (2500-1700 BCE).The site was most likely abandoned after the course of the Murghab River shifted to the west

The Late Bronze Age in Southern Central Asia

The Late Bronze Age (ca. 1800–1500 BC) marks the period of BMAC decline, sociopolitical restructuring, and localization of many material traditions.  This period is noted for syncretic institutions that draw on archaeological assemblages from towns (Namazga VI period), villages, and mobile campsites. Fortified sites are replaced by smaller disaggregated rural settlements in the steppe and piedmont zones of southwest Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan (e.g., Vakhsh, Bishkent cultures) and along the edges of the earlier fortified centers .

Substantial archaeological evidence for the presence of nomadic groups along the desert margins and deltas surrounding the BMAC sites dates to the mid-second millennium BC. Whereas the BMAC sites are linked to other well-known civilizations of antiquity, such as the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Gulf, the nomadic campsites on account of their ceramic assemblage are grouped within the broader steppe tradition of northern Central Asia.

Direct evidence for contact between mobile pastoralists and settled farming groups includes handmade steppe coarsewares and pottery (Namazga VI) of the final BMAC phase coexisting in the mobile campsites, in larger BMAC towns, and in villages of the surrounding mountain foothill zones .. The spatial overlap of these distinct assemblages suggests some degree of interaction between BMAC/post-BMAC communities and mobile pastoralists, but the exact nature of these interactions is still being determined.

Learn More

See my post Iron Age Kurgans

Connecting China to Europe in the Bronze Age by Edward Pegler, Nov 1, 2013 Armchair Prehistory

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