Kelteminar Culture Flourishes in Central Asia

Kelteminar culture was the first extended settled civilization in the western part of Central Asia.

Summary of Event

Kelteminar culture was discovered as the result of aerial searches in 1939 by Soviet archaeologist S. P. Tolstov. In 1946, he led an expedition to Khwarizm that produced further discoveries there. The heartland of Kelteminar was along the eastern bank of the Amu Dar’ya (Oxus) River in Khwarizm. That great river then emptied out into the Caspian Sea as well as the Aral Sea and produced a lake in Khwarizm called Lyavlyakan. The fertile region to the east and south formed part of what is today the Kyzyl Kum Desert. Nine Neolithic open-air sites have been uncovered in this region, all exhibiting the material culture that has been labeled Kelteminar. The center of this culture lay just east of the Karakalpak Autonomous Region in modern Uzbekistan. Kelteminar culture extended south of the Aral Sea throughout the now dry Akcha Dar’ya Delta and in the lower Zeravshan River areas. To the north, this culture extended into western Siberia. It was named after an abandoned canal in Khwarizm, where the initial discoveries were made.

The Kelteminar location placed it near three other civilizations of Central Asia: Afanasievo, Andronovo, and Karasuk. The valley of the lower course of the Karasuk River was historically an important area between nomadic tribes and the settled farming cultures to the south. It produced numerous ethnic peoples of Eurasia. The Kelteminar society maintained some contacts with the Anau culture, an agricultural society, to the south, about 8 miles (13 kilometers) southeast of Ashkhabad, and also with the Neolithic communities to the north in the Ural and lower Ob River regions.

Incised pottery and pottery made from shells, dating from as early as the fifth millennium b.c.e., was discovered south of the Aral Sea. Round clay pots, pointed on the bottoms, were decorated with drawings and stamped designs. Shells have also been discovered as grave goods. Grave sites reveal artifacts of flint and quartz that were inserted into wooden or bone handles. Arrowheads were abundant, but the bow had not yet been invented. Kelteminar people lived in seasonal villages composed of oval-shaped frame homes, with about 100 to 120 residents per village. Contemporary settlements from Xinjiang (Sinkiang) to eastern Mongolia were similar.

Early Kelteminar people engaged in fishing, hunting, and food gathering, maintaining few, if any, domesticated animals and doing little farming, in contrast to both the Anau and Jeitun societies to the south and east. Sickle blades have been found in this region, suggesting a trend toward a more settled existence as time progressed. In modern Turkmenistan, mixed farming appeared about 5300 b.c.e. both within and east of the Jeitun culture as far as the Hindu Kush Mountains. It is uncertain when the Kelteminar populations began to participate in this activity. Kelteminar grave sites have yielded bones of wild pigs, deer, and turtles. The people maintained herds of sheep, horses, and pigs that were often guarded by huge, half-wild dogs, Canis familiaris matris optimae; there are also signs of domesticated goats, sheep, oxen, pigs, and cattle. In the later stage of this society, from 4300 to 3000 b.c.e., the practice of metallurgy was developing, and barley was being supplemented by a new hybrid of wheat. South of this region fortified walls engulfed the many round houses, an indication that the inhabitants feared Kelteminar warriors, who were still recognized as nomads. This threat may have provided an impetus for the beginnings of town life.


Kelteminar was the first extended settled civilization in the western part of Central Asia and was undoubtedly the first Neolithic civilization in Khwarizm. However, the process by which stock breeding arose in ancient Khwarizm remains a question. One theory is that the practice of domesticating certain animals among the fisher-hunter peoples of the steppes came from contact with the peoples to the south, but there is scant evidence to indicate a mass movement of the southern peoples northward to the Amu Dar’ya and beyond to the steppes. Oxen and cattle were of little use to the Kelteminar nomads, although some remains of these animals have been found in Kelteminar sites. Pigs were animals that bridged that divide. The dominant opinion is that the domestication of certain animals arose within Kelteminar society itself. The later stage of Kelteminar life indicates a society that was gradually developing a more settled existence in contrast to its purely nomadic existence in the fifth millennium b.c.e., although it is unknown whether this arose through contact with the Jeitun and Anau cultures.

Further Reading

  • Christian, David. Inner Asia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire. Vol. 1 in A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1998. A prominent historian analyzes and summarizes the materials in the larger context. Bibliography and index
  • Davis-Kimball, Jeannine, Vladimir A. Bashilov, and Leonid T. Yablonsky. Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age. Berkeley, Calif.: Zinat Press, 1995. Offers analysis of Soviet studies since 1960 by various experts. Bibliography and index.
  • Edwards, I. E. S., et al., eds. Prolegomena and Prehistory. Volume 1 of Cambridge Ancient History. 3d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1971. An older but indispensable starting point for an overview of the region. Bibliography and index.
  • Frye, Richard N. The Heritage of Central Asia: From Antiquity to the Turkish Expansion. Princeton, N.J.: Marcus Weiner, 1996. A well known scholar of Iranian history extends his analysis to the northeast. Bibliography and index.
  • Levine, Marsha, Yuri Rassamakin, Aleksandr Kislenko, and Nataliya Tatarintseva. Late Prehistoric Exploitation of the Eurasian Steppe. Cambridge, England: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 1999. Since nomadic cultures leave few settled archaeological sites, this study utilizes bone analysis to discuss the lifestyle of the Kelteminar culture, among others.