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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Botai-Tersek Culture (Chalcolithic) (Central Asia)
c.3700 - 3100 BC

The Botai culture of Central Asia appeared in a relatively limited area in what is now Kazakhstan, at the headwaters of the rivers Tobol and Ishim, both of which merged with the Irtysh in the great forests to the immediate east of the Ural Mountains. The culture's type site is at Botai, on the River Iman-Burluk, a tributary of the Ishim in northern Kazakhstan.

To its immediate south, the Kel'teminar culture was already heading towards its conclusion while this steppe culture was also possibly one of the earliest-known horse cultures. The slightly more eastern Teresk is related - and is equally limited in territorial extent. The two can comfortably be placed side-by-side. Both cultures were formed relatively quickly out of what previously had been the pedestrian forager cultures of the Atbasar and Makhandzhar on the northern Kazakh steppe.

The Afanasevo culture which appeared very soon after the rise of the Botai-Tersek was intrusive in the Altai Mountains. It was produced by a sudden migration of Volga-Ural steppe groups of the Late Khvalynsk and Repin cultures from an area around the Caspian Sea. These people are theorised to have been the ancestors of the Tocharians. It introduced across the eastern steppe a suite of domesticated animals, metal types, pottery types, and funeral customs which were derived from the Volga-Ural steppe region.

These migrants may also have been responsible for introducing horse-riding along their route to the indigenous foragers, who were quickly transformed into the horse-riding, wild-horse-hunting, and village-living Botai culture just at the time at which the Afanasevo migration began. The change must have been about as monumental as that of the early days of Europeans meeting Native Americans.

The Botai of the Chalcolithic (Eneolithic, or Copper Age) rode horses to hunt horses (for meat), a peculiar arrangement which existed only within this culture and only on the northern steppe of Kazakhstan. They overwhelmingly preferred this meat over other hunting targets, such as aurochs (or possibly a form of bison), elk, deer, bear, beaver, antelope, and gazelles.

They used their mounts to funnel entire herds of wild horses into a kill zone, a more proficient process than anything which preceding millennia of hunter-gatherer techniques had produced. The Botai have been claimed as the original domesticators of the horse, but the Late Khvalynsk and Repin people are much closer to being able to claim this title.

The people of the Botai spoke an undetermined language which does not appear to be related to the proto-Indo-European tongue spoken by the Afanasevos. However, while they were clearly not Indo-Europeans themselves, the language barrier seems not to have been a problem when it came to them absorbing Afanasevo cultural aspects, along with the aforementioned animal domestication and horse-riding, plus new pottery types, and improved metalworking.

The Indo-European speakers probably employed translators in their dealings with the Botai-Tersek, something they most probably learned from the dealings by their recent ancestors with Maikop traders which had brought them wagons.

The assumption should be made that most steppe tribes were now equestrian. However, the Botai-Tersek people failed to provide a successor culture to their brief spell of focussed organisation as horse-riding enclave-dwellers. Instead they seem to have been submerged by later Uralic-Siberian-Central Asian groups (the latter primarily being Indo-Iranians). Instead, it is cultures of the Yamnaya horizon which dominate here, principally the western edges of Afanasevo and later the Andronovo.

Henge-building traditions

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, and from External Links: Indo-Europeans and Uralic Peoples, and Another series of Indo-European themed maps (Dark Heritage), and First Domesticated Horses (Facts and Details), and Horse domestication in the Botai Culture, Eneolithic Kazakhstan, Alan Outram (University of Exeter), Genetic history of admixture across inner Eurasia; Botai shows R1b-M73 (Indo-European.eu), and The 'Copper Age' - A History of the Concept, Mark Pearce (Journal of World Prehistory, Vol 32, pp 229-250, 2019, and available online via Springer Link).)

c.3700 - 3500 BC

Around this time a section of the Volga-Ural pastoral steppe population of the Late Khvalynsk and Repin, near the Caspian Sea, decides to migrate eastwards across Kazakhstan.

FeaturePotentially Tocharians, they cover a distance of more than two thousand kilometres as they travel. They reach a region just to the north of Lake Balkhash, intruding into the Altai Mountains (see feature link).

Altai Mountains
The Altai Mountains link together the borders of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, and Xinjiang, providing the source for the rivers Irtysh and Ob

This incredible trek leads to the appearance of the Afanasevo culture in the western Gorny Altai. These people use four-wheeled wagons to transport their population, all of them speaking a form of proto-Indo-European which is common throughout the Yamnaya horizon which explodes across the steppe around this time.

What this trek also seems to do is introduce horse-riding to the indigenous foragers of the north Kazakh steppe, who are quickly transformed into the horse-riding, wild-horse-hunting Botai and Tersek cultures.

c.3100 - 3000 BC

The Botai and Tersek cultures fade out of use at about the same time as China's Yangshao culture. Korea's Jeulmun pottery phase is enjoying its prosperous 'Middle' period, but Central Asia already has its Afanasevo culture which dominates Lake Balkhash and parts of the Altai Mountains.

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