Ancient horse-riding nomads weren’t just bandits – report

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Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire. © Chinneeb

A researcher has moved to dispel perceptions of prehistoric Eurasian nomads as horse-riding bandits who used their mobility and military skill to antagonise ancient civilizations such as the Chinese, Persians and Greeks.

Although some historical accounts may support this view, a new article by Dr Michael Frachetti, of Washington University, in St Louis, presents a considerably different image of prehistoric pastoralist societies and their impact on world civilizations more than 5000 years ago.

In the article, in the February issue of “Current Anthropology”, Frachetti argues that early pastoral nomads grew distinct economies across the steppes and mountains of Eurasia and triggered the formation of some of the earliest and most extensive networks of interaction in prehistory.

The model for this unique form of interaction, which Frachetti calls “nonuniform” institutional complexity, describes how discrete institutions among small-scale societies significantly impact the evolution of wider-scale political economies and shape the growth of great empires or states.

Around 3500BC, regionally distinct herding economies were found across the Eurasian steppes.

In some regions, these societies were the first to domesticate and ride horses.

Over the next 2000 years, key innovations introduced by steppe nomads such as chariots, domesticated horses, and advanced bronze metallurgy spread across the mountains and deserts of Inner Asia and influenced the political and economic character of ancient civilisations, from China to Mesopotamia, Iran, and the Indus Valley.

Although the mobile societies that fueled these networks came to share certain ideological and economic institutions, in many cases their political organisation remained autonomous and idiosyncratic.

Still, these regional economic and social ties forged between neighboring mobile communities helped new ideologies and institutions propagate over vast territories, millennia before the fabled “Silk Road”.


Michael D. Frachetti, “Multiregional Emergence of Mobile Pastoralism and Nonuniform Institutional Complexity across Eurasia”. Current Anthropology 53:1 (February 2012).



One thought on “Ancient horse-riding nomads weren’t just bandits – report

  • March 26, 2012 at 10:06 am

    Dr Frachetti is spot-on. The Central Asian mounted nomads created the first extensive social network in human history. Without the steppe horse culture the Old World would have stagnated at the cultural level of the New World. Horse speed made the cultural and technological difference between the Americas and Eurasia. Actually my book “The Centaur Legacy”, lanched at the Royal Geographical Society in 2005 tries to make the facts clear.


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