The generic title encompasses the varied ethnic groups who have at times inhabited the steppes of Central Asia, Mongolia, and what is now Russia. They domesticated the horse around 3500 BC, vastly increasing the possibilities of nomadic life, and subsequently their economy and culture emphasised horse breeding, horse riding and nomadic pastoralism; this usually involved trading with settled peoples around the steppe edges. They developed the chariot, wagon, cavalry and horse archery and introduced innovations such as the bridle, bit and stirrup, and the very rapid rate at which innovations crossed the steppelands spread these widely, to be copied by settled peoples bordering the steppes.
Scythia was a loose state or federation covering most of the steppe that originated as early as 8th century BC, composed mainly of people speaking Iranian languages, and usually regarded as the first of the nomad empires. The Roman army hired Sarmatians as elite cavalrymen. Europe was exposed to several waves of invasions by horse people, including the Cimmerians in the 8th century BCE, various peoples during the Migration period, the Magyars in the Early Middle Ages, the Mongols and Seljuks in the High Middle Ages, the Kalmuks and the Kyrgyz and later the Kazakhs up to modern times. The earliest example of an invasion by a horse people may have been by the Proto-Indo-Europeans themselves, following the domestication of the horse in the 4th millennium BCE (see Kurgan hypothesis). Cimmerian is the first invasion of equestrian steppe nomads that is known from historical sources. Their military strength was always based on cavalry, usually marked by prowess as mounted archers. Kurgan is a general term for steppe burial mounds, which sometimes contained very elaborate burials.
Historically, areas to the north of China including Manchuria, Mongolia and Xinjiang were inhabited by nomadic tribes. Early periods in Chinese history involved conflict with the nomadic peoples to the west of the Wei valley. Texts from the Zhou dynasty (c.1050-256 BC) compare the Rong, Di and Qin dynasty to wolves, describing them as cruel and greedy. Iron and bronze were supplied from China. An early theory proposed by Owen Lattimore suggesting that the nomadic tribes could have been self-sufficient was criticized by later scholars, who questioned whether their raids may have been motivated by necessity rather than greed. Subsequent studies noted that nomadic demand for grain, cereals, textiles and ironware exceeded China's demand for Steppe goods. Anatoly Khazanov identified this imbalance in production as the cause of instability in the Steppe nomadic cultures. Later scholars argued that peace along China's northern border largely depended on whether the nomads could obtain the essential grains and textiles they needed through peaceful means such as trade or intermarriage. Several tribes organized to form the Xiongnu, a tribal confederation that gave the nomadic tribes the upper hand in their dealings with the settled agricultural Chinese people.
During the Tang dynasty, Turks would cross the Yellow River when it was frozen to raid China. Contemporary Tang sources noted the superiority of Turkic horses. Emperor Taizong wrote that the horses were "exceptionally superior to ordinary [horses]". The Xiajiasi (Kyrgyz) were a tributary tribe who controlled an area abundant in resources like gold, tin and iron. The Turks used the iron tribute paid by the Kyrgyz to make weapons, armor and saddle parts. Turks were nomadic hunters and would sometimes conceal military activities under the pretense of hunting. Their raids into China were organized by a khagan and success in these campaigns had a significant influence on a tribal leaders prestige. In the 6th c. the Göktürk Khaganate consolidated their dominance over the northern steppe region through a series of military victories against the Shiwei, Khitan, Rouran, Tuyuhun, Karakhoja, and Yada. By the end of the 6th century, following the Göktürk civil war, the short-lived empire had split into the Eastern and Western Turkic Khaganates.
The concept of "horse people" was of some importance in 19th century scholarship, in connection with the rediscovery of Germanic pagan culture by Romanticism (see Viking revival), which idealised the Goths in particular as a heroic horse-people. J. R. R. Tolkien's Rohirrim may be seen as an idealised Germanic people influenced by these romantic notions. Tolkien's Wainriders of eastern Rhûn recall ancient steppe peoples like the Scythians. Similarly, George R. R. Martin's nomadic Dothraki people are heavily influenced by the lifestyles and cultures of historical horse people.
Nomadism persists in the steppelands, though it has generally been disapproved of by modern regimes, who have often discouraged it with varying degrees of coercion.
Chronologically, there have been several "waves" of invasions of either Europe, the Near East, India and/or China from the steppe.
- Bronze Age
- Proto-Indo-Europeans, see Indo-European migrations, Kurgan theory, and the later Indo-Aryan migration theory
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