The Bronze Age Khanates of Central Asia

By Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C. | Antiquity, June 1994 | Go to article overview

The Bronze Age Khanates of Central Asia


Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C., Antiquity


It would make far more sense, perhaps, to derive states from achievement-oriented big-man societies than it would from ascriptively-determined chiefdoms.

(NORMAN YOFFEE 1993: 65)

The Oxus Civilization, chiefdoms and states

Recently Norman Yoffee (1993) has offered a trenchant criticism of the neo-evolutionary perspective that requires the formulation of a chiefdomship prior to the origin of a state. His essay offers a clearly stated argument for the 'most striking lack of fit between the evolutionary concept of chiefdom and Mesopotamian data'. For the reader wishing to review the well-worn definitions and tireless efforts to discover chiefdoms in the archaeological record his essay is an excellent read (see also Earle 1991). This essay reflects upon the relatively recent discovery of a Central Asian Bronze Age characterized by a socio-political structure that differed from a chiefdomship or a state.

Henri-Paul Francfort observes in his essay that the evolutionary trajectory that brought about the emergence of the Oxus Civilization differed from that which brought about cultural complexity in Mesopotamia. What differs is the end-product, the Oxus Civilization, not necessarily the evolutionary trajectory that preceded its emergence. In fact, prior to the emergence of the Oxus Bronze Age, the Central Asian archaeological sequence appears to mirror that which characterized virtually all of the Near East. By the late 7th millennium the Neolithic communities of Central Asia shared the identical subsistence pattern that characterized all of the Near East, while the later communities of the 4th and 5th millennium also shared an identical technological base for the production of pottery, metal, irrigation, etc. By the end of the 4th millennium (Namazga III), there is evidence for considerable contact between the settlements of Central Asia, Baluchistan and the Iranian plateau (Tosi et al. 1992; Masson 1992). After Neolithic and Chalcolithic cultures in Central Asia very similar to those in the rest of the Near East, the subsequent Oxus Civilization invented itself relatively rapidly and as a wholly distinctive social formation.

The Oxus Civilization developed rapidly in the hitherto sparsely populated regions of Margiana and Bactria. Prior to 2200 BC, these regions were virtually uninhabited whereas by 2000 BC the riverine oases in Margiana were dotted by substantial towns. It is believed that the populations responsible for initiating the settlement of Margiana came from the piedmont foothills of western Turkmenistan. The reason(s) for the abandonment of settlements in western Turkmenistan, such as Altyn depe, coincident with the colonization of Margiana, remain wholly unknown. Suffice it to say that the material culture of the final occupation at places like Altyn depe establishes a link with the earliest materials recovered in the settlements from Margiana. After the initial colonization of Margiana, additional founder settlements of the Oxus Civilization were established to the east in Bactria.

Within a century the peoples of the Oxus developed a material culture substantially different from that which characterized their past. The rapid transformation of their material culture coincides with an entirely new social order. The settlements of the Oxus are characterized by a distinctive repertoire of cylinder seals, compartmented seals of metal, shaft-hole axes decorated with recumbent animals, a rich variety of ceramic vessels, and -- especially -- its distinctive architecture. Astonishingly, the settlement-type of the Oxus Civilization can be almost identically duplicated in the later Iron Age, the medieval age, and within the ethnographic present. This distinctive architecture is encountered for the first time in the settlements of Margiana and Bactria around 2000 BC.

Tolstov and early notice of the region

The first archaeologist to uncover this form of distinctive community and settlement pattern was S. …

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