History Files


Central Asia

Indo-Iranian Steppe Domination

by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 20 April 2024

The beginnings of Indo-European (IE) expansion took place around 4000 BC, thanks at least in part to a changing climate in Eastern Europe.

By the period between about 3500-2500 BC it was in full flow (see map, below), largely comprising the West Indo-European population of the Pontic steppe migrating en masse towards the Danube and Central Europe.

Map of Indo-Europeans c.3000 BC
The Indo-Europeans of the Pontic-Caspian steppe began to migrate out of their core territory around 3000 BC, while those who remained behind - the East IEs - eventually integrated themselves into the Oxus Civilisation and probably then supplied the Aryans of India and Iran (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Post-Yamnaya steppe

Once this Yamnaya horizon had petered out, by about 2000 BC, remaining on the steppe were leftover West Indo-European groups. Population figures at this time can only be guessed at. To their east was the 'other' half of the Indo-European steppe population, the East Indo-Europeans or Indo-Iranians.

The process which saw these Indo-Iranians migrating westwards is unknown thanks to the lack of written records, but migrate they did. They would have imposed their own domination over the remaining West Indo-European populations as they did so.

These groups, probably small and relatively weak, become the farmers and workmen for their new masters. This process is supported by the DNA record, with the Pontic steppe showing a transition from Y-DNA R1b (West IEs) to Y-DNA R1a (East IEs).

Such DNA finds usually come from members of the nobility and the warrior caste who were buried properly under Kurgan mounds, while the serfs are far less likely to have been buried in such a way which would have preserved them. Unfortunately this means that no detail is known about the transition and takeover. The only clues come from later tribes which were recorded by Greek writers.

For instance, there likely remained a Y-DNA R1b underclass within the later Agathyrsi and Tauri tribes, and probably the Cimmerians too. After all, someone has to grow the barley, reap it, and hand it over to the nobles so that their horses can be fed.

The earliest-known Indo-Iranian masters of the Pontic steppe were those Agathyrsi. No clue is available to show when that dominance started, but it certainly ended between about 730-670 BC. The Scythians moved in from the east, clearing out the Cimmerians, dominating the Tauri, and kicking the Agathyrsi into Thrace.

The Agathyrsi became integrated into Thracian society, with their Indo-Iranian traits eventually disappearing. Perhaps their West IE underclass made that process easier.

The Tauri may have been almost entirely West IE even when they were noted by Herodotus in the fifth century BC, with only a small Indo-Iranian elite in command.

Sakas on a frieze at Persepolis
Saka (otherwise known as 'Scythians') depicted on a frieze at Persepolis in Achaemenid Persia, which would have been the greatest military power in Central Asia during the late sixth century BC

As for the Scythians, they in turn were later subjugated by Goths during the great migration period of the second to fourth century AD. This was an unusual example of west-to-east invasion of the steppe, but it was put right by the arrival of the Huns, and then the Bulgars, Avars, and Mongols.

Effects on tribes

Occasionally such an influence, however lowly, may have had an effect on tribe names too. The Tauri were known to have a mixed heritage which - as mentioned - was part Scythian (the dominant steppe force by that time). Their name is far more likely to have a West IE origin though, because the root for Tauri (meaning 'cattle, bull') was not used in East IE speech. They had a different word.

While remaining West IE populations on the Pontic steppe may largely have been wholly subsumed by Indo-Iranians, the case of the Tauri at the southern edge of Crimea may shine a light on a widespread process which followed the ending of the Yamnaya horizon.

Further afield, the Goths also exhibited potential Indo-Iranian steppe influences. Due to odd linguistic, religious and cultural elements in Germanic tribes such as the aforementioned Goths, there seems to have been early contact between Germans/Scandinavians and Indo-Iranians.

In fact this seems to have occurred not once but twice. In the religion and myth of the Germanics, writers record the names of the three sons of Mannus. Those names are found in the languages of Vedic Sanskrit and Avestan (Old Iranian), so they must have reached the early Germanics through steppe interaction or later contact.

That contact would have occurred more than 2800 years ago because it predates the second event. That second wave of contact appears to take place later, with Sarmatians entering the eastern Germanic region around the Baltic coast (see Second Wave Germanic Influences via the sidebar link). It was they who taught the Goths to fight as cavalry!


Main Sources

J Pokorny - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary

J M Cook - The Persian Empire (1983)

René Grousset - The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia (1970)

Online Sources

Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

J Pokorny - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary

I P'iankov - The Ethnic [Background] of [the] Sakas (Scythians) (presented by the Iran Chamber Society)

Ancient History Encyclopaedia (dead link)

World History Maps - Talessman's Atlas



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler & Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.