Karasuk Culture Flourishes on Eurasian Steppes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Karasuk, primarily a pastoralist culture of aggressive horsemen, were noted for their skill in bronze work and their early ironwork; several thousand of their burial sites have been preserved.

Summary of Event

The Karasuk culture of the Middle Yenisey River Valley was only a small part of a much broader cultural area affected by the Scythians (whose influence extended from the Danube River in the west, to the Black Sea and Aral Seas in the south, and to the Yenisey River region in the east). Karasuk and related cultures such as the Tagar who replaced them formed a bridge between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age in this region, although they are best known for their bronze work. Among others, they were famous for their horsemanship, many kurgans (burial sites), and jewelry and daggers that they left behind. Pottery, found at many of the burial sites, shows a close association with other cultural groups in central Asia (especially Kazakhstan).

Karasuk culture most likely developed as a blending of indigenous Yenisey cultures with the Andronovo culture (fifteenth-fourteenth centuries b.c.e.) that preceded it. The Andronovo culture is a broad term that covers a series of related cultural traits that were most likely connected to Indo-Iranian peoples and to the Scythians. Styles of bronze work, a preference for animal motifs in their art, and a linguistic connection to proto-Iranian language (as evidenced in place-names across central Siberia) link all these groups together. Thus, the Karasuk were not an isolated or unique group of people but instead were part and parcel of an extensive region of Eurasia connected by trade, burial styles, bronze work, a fascination with and love of horses, and, to some extent, petroglyphs (rock art). Their culture developed during a period of warming in Siberia that made it more habitable than it is today. Therefore, they settled for short periods of time during the several coldest months in homes that were partially subterranean. During the rest of the year, they moved with their horses, cattle, and sheep to find pasture in the hollows and valleys formed by the tributaries of the Middle Yenisey River. A rich collection of knives, daggers, horse bridles, bracelets, and rings found at their burial sites points to their skill in metallurgy. Another interesting aspect of Karasuk culture was their aggressive style of horsemanship. They may have been part of the early formation of “berserk warriors” across Eurasia, whose fierceness and lack of fear as they rode their horses while partially naked during battle made them feared far and wide.

The Karasuk culture probably drew to a close because of the combined effects of a changing climate and competition with other groups of people being displaced by the expansion of the Chinese and Persian civilizations. Maximum average temperatures and humidity occurred around 800 b.c.e. but rapidly cooled over the next several decades and caused a drying period throughout Siberia in general. At the same time, nomadic peoples who lived south and west of the Karasuk were pushed northward and eastward by the expansion of the Chinese and Persian civilizations. The result was the breaking up of some groups and a new blending of peoples and their cultures in the region through competition and new cooperation in order to survive. Thus, what followed was an unsettling period as the old pastoralism contracted and new ways of producing food had to be found. In this transition period, a Scythian people known as the Tagar moved in and supplanted the former cultures of the Yenisey River region.

Significance

The significance of the Karasuk lies as much in what they left behind for modern archaeologists to study as in their impact on this region for many centuries to come. It is certain that they were one among many groups in the region making the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, with the changes in technology that this would entail. It is possible that, with other related groups, they made contact with late-Shang Dynasty Chinese and introduced some aspects of bronze work and other forms of metallurgy to them. Moreover, they were most likely part of a larger diffusion of militant horsemanship into the region, which would eventually influence the rise of Mongolian horse cultures that would in turn push into China and westward into Europe centuries later. However, what is most important are the artifacts they left in more than two thousand extant burial sites and their petroglyphs because they provide an invaluable source of information about life and culture at that time and place. These remains also reveal the linkages between different but related groups of people over broad areas (from Europe to the Middle East to India to Siberia) and over a long period of time (from the Neolithic Age through to the Iron Age).

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christian, David. Inner Eurasia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire. Vol. 1 in History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. An examination of Eurasia that covers the Karasuk and many other cultures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Kimball J., V. Bashilov, and L. T. Yablonsky, eds. Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age. Berkeley, Calif.: Zinat Press, 1995. A close look at the nomadic tribes that inhabited the steppes of Eurasia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dergachev, V. A. “Climatic Changes During the Holocene in the Eurasian Steppe of Southern Siberia (Miniusinsk and Uyuk Hollows) and the Development of Archaeological Cultures.” Geophysical Research Abstracts 5 (2003). An examination of the climatic changes as they affected the cultures that lived in the area.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Karasuk Culture.” In Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, edited by J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997. A short overview of the Karasuk culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Pastoral and Nomadic Tribes at the Beginning of the First Millennium b.c.” In The Dawn of Civilization. Vol. 1 in History of the Civilizations of Central Asia, edited by A. H. Dani and V. M. Masson. Paris: UNESCO, 1992. Focuses on early pastoral and nomadic groups during part of the period that the Karasuk flourished.

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