The Emergence of the Scythians: Bronze Age to Iron Age in South Siberia

By Legrand, Sophie | Antiquity, December 2006 | Go to article overview

The Emergence of the Scythians: Bronze Age to Iron Age in South Siberia


Legrand, Sophie, Antiquity


The emergence of the Karasuk culture

Keywords: Bronze Age, Siberia, Minusinsk Basin, Andronovo culture, Karasuk culture, burial mounds, horses, pastoralism

Introduction

The Minusinsk Basin includes the middle valley of the Yenisei River and the upper valley of the river Chulym (Figures 1 & 2). It is surrounded on three sides by wide belts of high mountains--the Kuznetsky Alatau and the Abakan range to the west, the western Sayan to the south and the eastern Sayan to the east. The mountains are covered with dense forest, but the basin itself is steppe land. In the north-west corner of the basin is the 'Tom-Chulym corridor', a belt of wooded steppe that in ancient times linked the territory of groups of the Minusinsk area and those of the Altay and Kazakhstan. The Minusinsk groups could communicate with the rest of the world only by traversing those few difficult mountain passes. They were thus relatively isolated even from their nearest neighbours (Gryaznov 1969:11). The Bronze Age of the area divides into two main cultural phases: the Andronovo culture that characterised the valley from the seventeenth century BCE, and the Karasuk culture that succeeded it in the fourteenth century BCE. Geochemical analyses on deposits from Kutudjekovo Lake in the Minusinsk Basin revealed climatic changes between the Andronovo and the Karasuk periods (Kulkova 2003: 255-74; cf Bokovenko: Figure 2, below). In the Andronovo period, the climate was semi-arid and slightly cool. From the beginning of the Karasuk period and later, the climate became more humid and cooler. Under arid climatic conditions the vegetation reacts quite sensitively to humidity, so the vegetation density increases as the humidity increases. This was the case in the Minusinsk Basin.

[FIGURES 1-2 OMITTED]

There is some settlement evidence for the Andronovo and the Karasuk periods, but the main focus of study has been on burial forms and practices. Russian scholars who excavated Andronovo and Karasuk sites have observed similarities as well as differences between the two (Teploukhov 1929: 43-4; Kiselev 1951: 135; Komarova 1952: 27; Khlobystina 1970: 125; Novgorodova 1970: 174; Vadetskaja 1986: 61; Grjaznov 1981: 31). But even though they continued the material cultural traditions of Andronovo, economic and social changes mark the emergence of the Karasuk, which appear to move from a sedentary to a more mobile mode of life. The aim of this paper is to assess the degree of these changes and seek their cause.

Settlements

Six settlement sites of the Andronovo period have been identified and investigated in the Minusinsk Basin. Only at one site, Klyuchi in the Yenisei valley (Maksimenkov 1978: 469), were the remains of walls belonging to structures of some size identified, and they were probably pens for livestock rather than dwellings. The associated finds--pottery and animal bones--were insufficient to establish the nature of the buildings (Grjaznov 1969: 90).

Among domesticated animals, those of cattle were the most numerous, followed by sheep and horses in small quantities.

For the Karasuk period there is evidence from seven villages including Tunchuch (Sebas'tjanova 1977), Kopenskoe and Torgazhak (Savinov 1996). The settlements had large, rectangular, wattle-and-daub semi-subterranean dwellings, ranging from 3-260 [m.sup.2] in plan. The preservation of wooden beams and pillars at Torgazhak indicated buildings with roofs up to 3m high and the sophisticated architecture suggested permanent settlement, as opposed to nomadic or seasonal occupation. A large number of bones of domesticated animals have been collected on these sites, with average proportions of 50 per cent sheep, 23 per cent cattle, 16 per cent horses, and 11 per cent goats. In addition to pottery vessels, many bronze, bone, stone and pottery artefacts have been found: bronze jewellery (bracelets, finger-rings), bronze knife blades, awls, nails, bone stamps, arrow heads and cheek-pieces, stone mortars, pestles, and clay crucibles. …

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