Andronovo Culture Rises in Central Asia

The Andronovo culture bridged the Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures in Central Asia.

Summary of Event

The Andronovo culture was named after a village in the Yenisey Valley near Achinsk, where burials were discovered in 1914 by S. A. Teploukov. This nomadic culture may have resulted from the merging of different Indo-European-speaking tribes to achieve a broad territorial base in the second millennium b.c.e. It extended north to the taiga, south to the Kopet Dag and Pamir Mountains, east to Minusinsk and the Altai Mountains, and west to the Ural steppes. Some people even migrated farther south to form the Indo-Iranian-speaking populations of northern India and Iran. The Andronovo society of the upper Yenisey steppes was marked by a newer, more sedentary way of life. To the south was a semiurban region dominated by the Oxus River (Amu Dar’ya) and nearby oases, encompassing northern Bactria and the Zerafshan valley of present-day Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

Irrigation discoveries indicate that many of these nomads practiced agriculture, as well as raising sheep, cattle, and horses. On the Andronovo steppes there are early examples of irrigation for farming and stock breeding. Generally, farming developed much earlier in the steppes west of the Ural River, in European lands. The extant pottery from Andronovo also reveals a pastoral society. From the middle of the Amu Dar’ya River to the Fergana valley, pastoralism and farming coexisted. Wild horses were hunted for food, including their milk, but domesticated animals were likewise consumed. In the late Bronze Age (first millennium b.c.e.), the greater dependence on horse culture strengthened the nomadic element in Andronovo culture, and they relied more on herding than farming.

Horse breeding took place in the steppes, and carvings found in the Pamir and Altai Mountains show chariots. These seem to be associated with the Andronovo culture, but to the south, in Bactria, such phenomena are absent. The Indo-Europeans were noted for the prominence of horses in their religious cult. Horse sacrifices were common and combined with a cult of fire. Yet the Andronovo people were not horse riders. They moved on foot, on wagons, and in chariots, but not yet atop their horses.

They lived in earthen huts, supplemented by stone and wood. Brick was sometimes used in the southerly regions. They made pottery decorated with triangles and other geometric patterns on flat-bottomed bowls and flower pots.

Burial sites reveal two principal variations among the eastern Andronovo population. The Fedorovo type maintained earthen burials with bodies in a flexed position. The Alakul type practiced cremation. Both types show evidence of devotion to the Sun god and the god of fire. Burials were in round, narrow embankments, and the graves, in pits, were faced with stone or wooden slabs. Bodies were interred in a supine position with heads turned to the southwest and legs contracted. Some of the graves reveal wooden structures, and variation in the quality of grave goods indicate class differentiation. Graves also contained flint arrowheads, copper beads and earrings, and bronze tools and weapons. Andronovo material culture shows similarities to the cultures of southern Russia, and both reveal relationships with the Indo-Iranian world.

Population movements were marked by competition for pasture lands by the nomadic peoples of the steppes and for farmland and irrigation networks by the more settled societies to the south. Warring East European tribes in this era may have depended on the metallurgical products of the Karasuk, across the Ural River. Andronovo gravesites also reveal the use of knives and spears, flint arrowheads, and bronze weapons. However, such evidence may indicate a hunting rather than a military culture.


The Andronovo significantly affected the cultures to the east and south. Like the Karasuk and earlier Afanasiev, they represent the movement of Indo-Europeans eastward across Siberia to Xinjiang and Mongolia. All these westerners brought their iron tools and weapons to the East. The custom of burying chariots in the graves of rulers was common to Mesopotamia and the Andronovo steppes, as well as China. This is evidence to some that the Andronovo culture transmitted this practice from the West to the East. An urban society also existed in the Oxus region to the south, although the population was only semiliterate. David Christian suggests that together these two societies represented a kind of symbiosis between the pastoral north and the urban south. A kind of world economic system may have been created whereby linkages were made between the Inner Asian world (the northern steppes and Mongolia) featuring pastoral lands and woodlands, and the Outer Asian civilizations (China, India, and Mesopotamia) with more extensive urban and agricultural communities.

Further Reading

  • Askarov, A., V. Volkhov, and N. Ser-Odjav. “Pastoral and Nomadic Tribes at the Beginning of the First Millenium.” In The Dawn of Civilization: Earliest Times to 700 b.c.
    Vol. 1 in History of Civilizations of Central Asia, edited by A. H. Dani and V. M. Masson. Paris: UNESCO, 1992. Demonstrates links between the Andronovo and the Karasuk. Bibliography and index.
  • Christian, David. Inner Asia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire. Vol. 1 in A History of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998. An excellent review of current scholarship for this region by an Australian specialist. Bibliography and index.
  • Davis-Kimball, Jeannine, Vladimir A. Bashilov, and Leonid T. Yablonsky, eds. Nomads of The Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age. Berkeley, Calif.: Zinat Press, 1995. Offers experts’ analyses of Soviet studies since 1960. Bibliography and index.
  • Edwards, I. E. S., et al., eds. The Cambridge Ancient History. Vol 1. 3d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970. An older but indispensable starting point for essential information. Bibliography, maps, and index.
  • Frye, Richard N. The Heritage of Central Asia: From Antiquity to the Turkish Expansion. Princeton, N.J.: Marcus Weiner, 1996. Argues for the Iranian origins of the Andronovo.
  • Masson, V. M. “The Decline of the Bronze Age Civilization and Movements of the Tribes.” In The Dawn of Civilization: Earliest Times to 700 b.c.
    Vol. 1 in History of Civilizations of Central Asia, edited by A. H. Dani and V. M. Masson. Paris: UNESCO, 1992. Shows the proto-European elements of the Andronovo. Bibliography and index.