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Library of the Steppe
They didn't read, but you should
Have you taken my Steppelandia Quiz yet?
Here’s my thesis: you can’t pretend to a firm grasp on human history if you don’t know the steppe and its peoples. And corollary: the Eurasian steppe is woefully ignored (both in formal scholarship and general knowledge), primarily because its illustrious peoples left neither written words nor walls for us to gaze upon.
Skeptical? I’ll go a step further: we minimize our steppe forefathers at our own peril. After all, as a species we owe something on the order of 15% of our total current ancestry to our steppe forebears, we still speak Indo-European languages derived from their tongue in every corner of the globe, our species could never have achieved development on the timeline we have without all the horse and transport-related innovations they bequeathed us. Finally, we cannot even understand the roots or the histories of much better-documented empires and civilizations across the full breadth of Eurasia (Rome, China, India, Persia, Byzantium, to name a few) without understanding the steppe foes they evolved in reaction to.
If you’re open to this conversation, I’ve written about my own obsession with the history of the steppe and am gearing up to reexamine that history itself in the coming months on my Substack. If you’re a long lapsed steppe-ian or want to dig in for the first time, below are six great books I can suggest as a starting place. These range from approachable, cheerleading steppe apologia to a musty, but not-to-be-missed pre-war French tome that changed my entire outlook on the steppe when I found it nearly three decades ago.
In search of something different? Reach out! I’m happy to recommend other books and papers I’ve loved if you have a more specific interest. And if your top six would look wildly different, please share in the comments so readers can all benefit from the recommendations.
My first recommendation is probably the most approachable on this list. Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World introduces the politics and culture of the steppe and makes the case for its significance in world history. Some will argue that the author veers towards protesting a bit too much that the “Mongols were good actually!”, but his prose is engaging and his genuine empathy for the subject is refreshing if you allow for the boosterism. If you’re going to have a tour guide, one with genuine enthusiasm for the subject is not the worst choice.
Weatherford followed up Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World with The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire and Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World's Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom. These two books make the case for a realm of home-front matriarchs and religious pluralism, Mongol-style. If you enjoy Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World I’d say the follow-ups don’t disappoint. Just be forewarned that these treatments come with a bit of teleology, with the Mongols selectively drawn in a light most congenial to the Western liberal-democratic ethos.
They don’t make them like The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia anymore. Originally written in 1939 in French by René Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes is 600+ pages of diplomatic, military and political history which unfolds the whole known narrative of Central Asia in exquisite detail. Though somewhat lacking in economic or cultural dimensions, Grousset’s book delivers you an excellent scaffold for approaching steppe history with an explicit sequence in time as a framework. What the volume lacks in prose style, it makes up for in pure density of fact and comprehensiveness of scope.
Though the English translation is out of print, I highly recommend tracking it down used, not least because unfortunately, general histories of this sort are not currently in vogue in academia.
Much of the human impact of the steppe on the rest of Eurasia dates to the period before history. About half the world’s population today speaks Indo-European languages, a phenomenon with roots that goes back 5,000 years ago, to the Neolithic. David W. Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World is the best long-form treatment of this topic. He succeeds in keeping it accessible to laypeople while maintaining academic rigor.
Anthony is an archaeologist by training, but he synthesizes historical linguistics and genetics into a compelling narrative of the rise and expansion of ancestral Indo-Europeans out of the grasslands of southern Russia. Since the writing of this book in 2008, paleogenetic research on the people here profiled most extensively, the Yamnaya pastoralists, has revealed they were far more demographically significant than even Anthony had dared suspect. So this book is that rare volume that has only grown more relevant and important over the decade and change since it came out.
Much as Grousset’s The Empire of the Steppes was a classic of the 1939 vintage, Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present is written for 21st-century tastes. Beckwith pays particular attention to culturally and socially unique aspects of steppe people. Rather than battles and treaties, he brings alive the interplay between the pastoralists and the settled, with a focus on how the former may have shaped the Weltanschauung of the latter. An ethnographic work, Empires of the Silk Road plumbs the deeper social structure beneath the scaffold of the narrative. Beckwith argues that steppe societies were founded on ideologies that eased group cohesion across tribes, rather than being simple blood-kin societies. In this way, he argues that steppe societies were more advanced than the farmer’s staid world, which was always destined to be narrowly delimited by village and locality.
Beckwith does end on a slightly peculiar note, raging against modernity and modernism in his final chapter. But overall the book presents a strong, if idiosyncratic, case for the cultural centrality of the steppe.
Why a book on China on this list? I consider it essential to the story because you can’t write a history of China without writing about the steppe. The first chapters of F. W. Motte’s Imperial China 900-1800 delve deeply into the origins and lifestyle of the Khitan and Jurchen, steppe and steppe-adjacent tribes. The approach continues, as the Mongols and Manchu are central to the later narrative (the Manchu themselves descend from Jurchen). For Motte, engagement with the steppe is essential to understanding Chinese diplomacy and culture, and he makes no apologies for interleaving the history of steppe peoples with that of the Han Chinese.
Imperial China 900-1800 reiterates the reality that the Eurasian heartland was a critical driver of change and adaptation in the competitor civilizations all around it, with China as a specific case study. The particular lessons can be applied just as well to other societies, including India, Iran and Russia.
Embedded within the pastoralist world of the Eurasian steppe are permanent settlements around which the course of the “Silk Road'' is threaded. Since its concrete emergence 2,000 years ago, this artery of trade and information that slices through the heart of Eurasia has shaped the history of the world. Valerie Hansen’s The Silk Road: A New History is an urban and archaeology-focused tour of this lost world, with a spotlight on the Sogdians, the ancient Central Asian people that connected the west and the east in the millennium before 1000 A.D. Hansen digs through the material and economic importance of the cities of the eastern Silk Road and their importance to China. Though accessible to the general audience, The Silk Road is clearly academic in intent.
Hansen’s story closes with the spread of Islam on the eastern steppe, because the Silk Road took on a new shape as its societies began to align with the West Asian religion. Before this, it existed in an equipoise between peripheral civilizations: Europe, Islam, and China. Given this, even though this is the most academic of my recommendations, I consider Hansen’s book essential reading to understand the world the Mongols exploded into around 1200 A.D.
If you haven’t yet, take my Steppelandia Quiz!
Now that nearly 5000 have tried their luck at the quiz, one thing I’m surprised by is what people thought the steppe was responsible for.
I’m still trying to figure out if I can access raw data to look at the correlation between people who know their own steppe ancestry proportion and survey results. So far, if the 10% or so of test-takers who say they know their proportion of genetic steppe ancestry is reporting it accurately, I suspect a Clubhouse-esque over-representation of Indian male participants, compared to my usually European-skewed readership (as in far more <10% steppe than the 10-20% band)!