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Central Asia: A Historical Overview

Demographic Map of Central Asia

Demographic Map of Central Asia


Very little information has appeared about the region of Central Asia in books and articles. There are two reasons for this problem. First of all, there is really no country that one can identify in the area until early 1990s. Most specialists in Asian studies tend to focus on a specific country. But for Central Asia, this is not the case. In addition, this area was closed off to the foreigners until recently because the western part of Central Asia was under Soviet rule and the eastern part was part of China.

There are five Central Asian countries that used to part of the Soviet Union. Four of them are Turkic (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan), and one is Persian speaking (Tajikistan). On the eastern side of Central Asia is the autonomous region of Xinjiang. Some people will also include Afghanistan as part of Central Asia. Very often, this area is also referred to as Inner Asia. This term, however, incorporates a broader sweep that includes Mongolia, Manchuria, and parts of Iran. It is an area that has witnessed tremendous amount of historical incidences. It is about the most multi-cultural region that you can imagine. Every major religion has passed through this area, such as Buddhism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, etc. Every artistic media, like sculptures, ceramics, cave paintings, has also flourished in this region.

Although there are tremendous interests in this area, Central Asia has not attracted much attention. This is partially due to the fact that the people in this area are transmitters rather than creators. Their roles have been to transmit ideas and innovations across Asia. The second drawback is that there was not a written language early on in history. The first written language was Sogdian that dated to 6th-7th centuries C.E., almost 2,000 years later than the Chinese language. The first Turkic script was derived from the 8th-9th centuries C.E. For the most part, our knowledge of the area prior to this period was derived from the material remains rather the literary sources. In addition, the population of this area did not develop a historical consciousness, like China or Persia. Very often, we have to depend on the Chinese or Persian accounts to tell us about this region that distort the whole history. In many instances, a negative image of Central Asia was conveyed.

The first important innovation of this region was the development of wheel in today Kazakhstan. The first chariot was also developed in this region around 2000-1500 B.C.E.

The Scythians
We don’t know much about the people who lived in this region until the appearance of the Scythians in 8th-7th centuries B.C.E. The Scythians started out in Central Asia and swept all the way across to the Black Sea region. They were an important force from 8th-4th centuries B.C.E. They exhibited a lot of nomadic characteristics of Central Asia.

The Scythians were divided into two groups, the royal and the ordinary. From burials, we have learnt that the royal group tends to be taller physically. Height tends to play a role in history. It appears that the Scythians did have kings, but most of them met a grisly end. They did not seem to have a system of succession. Eventually a system of tanistry was installed in which nobles and princes will get together and choose the successor. This system, however, did not work very well. So there was always an extraordinary amount of instability within these Central Asian kingdoms or khanates.

Most of the Central Asian people are nomadic. The optimal size of a nomadic unit is usually small because the land cannot sustain a group of animals that is too large in number. Too many animals would require the group to move constantly to look for new pasture for the animals. The best unit is a tribal unit, which is a small group. In this case, the unit does not have to travel as much since the animals are not consuming the grass as rapidly. It is difficult to go beyond this tribal system of organization. The Scythians followed these patterns.

The Scythians also depended on their horses. The horses gave them mobility in warfare and made them an effective military force. The sedentary people whom they came in to contact with did not have this mobility.

Women played a very important role in the nomadic group. The economic structure of the nomadic organization cannot be sustained without them. Women carry out all the chores and labor. These so-called “barbarians” by the Chinese are far advanced in terms of women’s rights. We know in later periods of nomadic history that women have to right to own property and animals, which is unique in traditional times. They have a right to divorce. While the men can focus on warfare and fighting against enemies, the women would take care of economic basis of the entire economy of a nomadic group.

The nomads love arts and crafts. In the case of the Scythians, it was the gold as seen in the spectacular animal-style objects.

All these people supported trade. They need objects and products that they cannot produce themselves. Access to sedentary civilizations is important to their survival. Unlike the Chinese, the nomads are very supportive of commerce and value trade enormously.

Another characteristic that afflicts these people throughout the ages is the horrendous problems with alcohol. Initially, it was fermented mare milk. But as these people interact with sedentary folks, they have an even greater access to liquor. One of my friends has pointed out that one of the reasons of the Mongols’ decline had to do with liquor and food. Increased access to alcohol and much richer food led to shorter lifespan. In some ways, Islam has helped the situation in this region because of the prohibition of liquor.

The Scythians began to decline around 5th century B.C.E. and eventually were overwhelmed by another nomadic group. This is very typical. Nomadic empires last for relative short periods. One possible explanation is that splits among the nomads appear once they become successful. Some of them began to live in cities in order to rule, and they began to lose their heritage and values that are associated with nomads. As they are gradually assimilated into a sedentary way of life, they find themselves at odds with the people who continue to be nomads. For example, the Mongol empire collapsed because of internal rifts and civil wars rather than external factors.