Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Entering Steppelandia: pop. 7.7 billion

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The Great Steppe (shown in blue): First a barrier, then a highway

In The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, a title perhaps familiar from my list of repeatedly recommended books, David Anthony describes how, until the invention of the wheel (and thus of wagons and carts), the Great Steppe that crosses Eurasia (see map above, with Italy visible at the left and Korea at the right) was impassible: trackless grassland, the grass an average of 5 feet tall, with water hard to find, impossible to traverse on foot.

Horses are native to the Great Steppe and adapted to life there — for example, cattle and sheep will die when snow covers the steppe, but horses will dig through the snow to the hay-like grass that lies beneath — and, as Anthony explains, horses were at first meat animals for steppe-dwellers as meat animals. At some point a stallion traded liberty for the luxury of getting laid, and herds of horses could be kept for food. (Almost all domesticated horses are, as we know from their Y-chromosomes, descended from that stallion.) Horses when hobbled do not roam, so no fences were required — and hobbles are easier to make and maintain than fences. Finally some brave souls tried riding the horses, and suddenly people could go faster and farther than when afoot.

But even when people were able to enter the steppe on horseback, the distances and sparseness of running water kept the step impassable. But when the wheel was invented, by the Assyrians, wagons were possible, and horse-drawn wagons could carry a lot of supplies. The flat plains of the steppe were transformed from barrier to highway, allowing the fierce speakers of Proto-Indo-European to prey on villagers across Eurasia, and later serving as a route for trade and commerce.

I highly recommend Anthony’s book. Razib Khan has an interesting article on the Great Steppe today:

Whenever I write deep-dive Substack posts on genetics and human history (IndiaItaly, even China), I end up cutting reams of in-depth background on the steppe before I hit “publish.” Why? The Eurasian steppe is my compulsive digression. Everything canonical, everything human… makes more sense if I make sure you understand the steppe first. But too many don’t. And I fear they don’t even know what they’re missing. I want to bring my readership along on my steppe obsession, not least so that the rest of my posts will be more meaningful reads.

In that spirit, the following piece kicks off a foray deep into the Eurasian steppe and its centrality to human history, civilization and genetics. This free post is the personal why of the steppe for me. In the subsequent series of long-form, subscriber-only pieces, I’ll be expanding on the what, who and when of 5000 years of the steppe.

Steppe super-fan or steppe-skeptic, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to Razib Khan’s Unsupervised Learning for more in this vein.

On a lighter note, try your hand at my two-minute “Your Steppe IQ” quiz. Legit bragging rights if you earn Khan status or make it to Steppelandia. And my best steppe reading recommendations for all who finish!


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I am haunted by the steppe. Yes, my surname comes from a Turkic language of the eastern steppe, in modern-day Mongolia. The only language I read has its ultimate origins on the steppe, among the kurgan burial-mound builders who flourished east of the Dnieper five thousand years ago. And sure, over four thousand years ago, my direct paternal ancestors were steppe pastoralists occupying lands west of the Volga. But the motives for my obsession aren’t that self-involved.

I probably don’t need to explain this to anyone who’s read me for long, but I churn through exhaustive obsessions in my readings. For example, in 1986 I read the last word I craved (or could find) on climatology, in 1987 dinosaurs, in 1988 military history, robotics and board games, in 1990 physical geography and overpopulation models, in 1993 cosmology and physics, in 1994 the Welsh, in 1995 Thomas Sowell and the history of science fiction, in 1996 Naomi Wolfe, in 1998 Luca Luigi Cavalli-Sforza and the Jewish people, in 1999 the Stoics, South Africa and Intelligent Design, goldfish in pre-9/11 2001, Salafists in post-9/11 2001, in 2003 David Hume, in 2004 Wittgenstein, in 2005 Catholicism, in 2006 R.A. Fisher, the Mormons and cognitive science of religion, in 2007 the Abbasids, in 2015 the Russians and in 2018 Critical Theory. To be sure, new contributions to a field draw me back into past passions on the regular. And certain domains I closed the book on tend to age better than others; my children regularly dismiss me among themselves: “Daddy only knows the old dinosaurs.”

But there are a few through-lines I’m never done with. Even 30 years into reading, I always feel I’m barely past the preface. In the broadest strokes, “peoples” have obsessed me since my earliest childhood. I clearly remember peppering my parents’ graduate-school acquaintances with “Which humans have the best vision?” and “Which humans are strongest?”-type questions before I could really read. And I couldn’t be born to a luckier age, because this consuming passion with human population history can now be yoked to the powerful engine of historical population genomics. I expect the riches of this field to remain inexhaustible generations after I am but dust.

Populations, population genomics and the histories of ancient nations we can infer from them, are what I live for. Which populations? No surprise that I’m never done with China or ancient Rome. But also the people of the steppe. Always the steppe. What even is the steppe? A void so under-examined, its illustrious peoples don’t even merit a single umbrella term. An expanse so vast it spans eight time zones. A word I’m disappointed to find few know and a world fewer still explore. Does any region whose influence touched empires and cultures across Europe, the Middle East and China, languish less examined?

The culture and genes of people all across the world today come from the steppe. The ancient Romans, Chinese and Arabs all have their advocates and chroniclers. They tell their story in their own voice. The Mongols may cut an impressive swath through history, but too often they see print only for the horrific deeds chronicled by their enemies. What if what we knew of the Romans only came via the Gauls after Caesar’s genocide against them? What if all that remained of Seinfeld were Wikipedia plot summaries by his vengeful antagonist Newman? What if Trump were our only observer of Obama?

Whether we are astute enough to recognize it or not, the shape of the modern world has been molded by conflict between the nomads of the Eurasian steppe and the loose arc of civilized societies that happened to lay curled around their domains. The politics, history, and geography of the steppe are critical lacunae in most grand historical narratives. The fall of the first Han Dynasty, the fall of the Roman Empire and the conquest of India by Muslims all owe to a sequence of events unleashed by Eurasian steppe nomads.

Grass from sea to shining sea

Beginning with the Great Hungarian Plain in the west, a broad ribbon of rich grassland stretches nearly unbroken across all of Eurasia to the Pacific, unfurling in infinite sameness between boreal forests to the north and arid deserts to the south. For an American kid weaned on 1980’s nature specials, my idea of vast open lands was the idyllic American prairie or the African savanna teeming with wildebeest. But the Eurasian steppe dwarfs both. The largest uninterrupted grassland ecosystem in the world, it spans 10,000 kilometers. It is more oceanic than continental in size. Even the scale of smaller subsections of this ecosystem is hard to fathom. The Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea begins on the edge of Romania and runs all the way east to the Volga river, where Europe gives way to Asia. A tarp cut from just the far eastern Mongolian reach of the steppe could casually smother all of Germany and France.

Thinking back, to arrive at my full appreciation of the importance of the steppe, I had to first get over a matter of elementary-school pedantry. The extensive color-coded maps in my beloved “biomes of the world” reference books had driven home Eurasia’s vastness. Our planet’s mega continent, Eurasia of course has the biggest biomes, chief among them the taiga, “forest” in Siberian Turkic languages. An uninterrupted expanse extending from Scandinavia to the Pacific ocean, the immense taiga is unmistakably more extensive than the steppe it parallels. Which is all very well if you are a wolf, moose, or bear and this is your prime habitat. Less so for a human. 

For our Ice-Age ancestors, the open steppe may not have been much more appealing than the semi-arctic forests, but . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2021 at 1:35 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, History

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