All right, I know you’re still glued to the news of political disaster. I agree that the signals Mr. Trump is sending by means of his initial appointments confirm many of the worst features of his campaign. Bigots and obscurantists seem to hold prominent places among them. But it’s not conducive to mental health to think of nothing else. A broad view of history can actually help produce a broader perspective. The long story of the Eurasian steppe has plenty of disasters in it, but contributed some great things to humanity at large. And the book I write about here is guaranteed to fascinate any enthusiast for history, archaeology, and/or geography.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the beautiful and fascinating book Steppes from the Denver Botanic Gardens, which provides a sweeping overview of the terrain and plant life of the world’s diverse semi-arid steppe regions, one of which turned out to be the Great Plains where I grew up. But the first region to be known by that name was the vast plain that stretches from Hungary across Eurasia as far as Mongolia without any decisive interruption to prohibit movement across it. This is a region that has lurked in the shadows in most books on ancient and medieval history—a relatively unknown place from which vast numbers of mounted warriors occasionally erupted to create havoc in the more settled, “civilized” areas of Europe and Asia.
Another recent book sheds an enormous amount of light on this obscure world: Barry Cunliffe’s By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia (Oxford University Press, 2015). It represents an ambitious pulling together of geographical, archeological, and historical knowledge to provide the first reasonably coherent account I have encountered of that world. Before this book, one met its peoples fleetingly at moments when they impinged (often violently) on the Fertile Crescent or the European heartland or China—or else as the idolsyrf inmates of ancient tombs excavated over the last century, who could only be tentatively identified with one or another group known from historical references.
The story has deep roots. The horse was first domesticated in the steppes. It was also the place where wheeled vehicles came into their own, both because of the flat terrain and because its people needed to move with their herds to take advantage of the best pastures. In addition to their horses, they acquired sheep, goats, and cattle from the Fertile Crescent (which bought horses in turn from them). And they became a primary vector for the spread of metallurgy, which arose in the mountains of Turkey and the Balkans. Far from being merely a problem population on the borders of settled farming cultures, they formed a principal link of communication and exchange among the emerging centers of settled life.
The history of what we call the “Silk Road” began much earlier than supposed and those routes transported ideas and people as well as merchandise—first through the steppe, then also through the deserts to the south of them as the Bactrian camel was added to the selection of domesticated animals.
The people of the steppe disturbed surrounding, settled cultures for a variety of reasons, one being periods of drought that forced groups in one or another part of the steppe to seek new pastures, thereby displacing neighbors, who displaced other neighbors and so on. Another factor was the increasing power of China at the eastern end of the steppe. Cunliffe suggests that the Great Wall was not a purely defensive endeavor as usually supposed, but an aggressive move into the steppe itself. It was part of a long seesawing of dominance between China and the neighboring steppe peoples, which could send shock waves all the way to Europe.
Over time, the increasing importance of maritime traffic—linking the Black Sea steppe to the Mediterranean, India to the Near East, and eventually Atlantic Europe to the Far East—was the final step in creating a new global awareness. It had the incidental effect of reducing the role the steppe had held for so long.
This is a fascinating book that will no doubt become the foundation for much further questioning and investigation. It finally begins to give one of the important chapters in our human cultural history its due.