How geography defined the great ancient civilizations (2): The pastoral nomadic civilizations and the origins of long-distance trade

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the journey to the east

Nomads: the connection between great river civilisations

Geography determines what we do to survive, hold together as groups, and create cultural differences. Some 3,000 years ago, some peoples had no option of settling as the geography was by no means favourable –as in fertile river valleys. Pastoralist civilisations were nomadic, and sometimes, if they needed to or to fill time and wallets, raided cities and towns. 

This post will examine how these great pastoral nomadic civilisations of Eurasia were influenced by geography, invented suitable tools for thrive in their environment, how they created trade, and how it continues to influence culture today.

Pastoral nomadic civilisations: horses, trousers, and chariots

There were favourable places that fit pastoral nomadism like a glove, most notably the grasslands of northern Eurasia. If we draw a straight line between the Nile delta and the Huang He (Yellow River) delta, the northern part of that divide would perfectly represent the historical seedbeds of pastoral nomadism.

The nomadic Xiongnu people established their first empire in the Northern regions of Mongolia between 209 BCE and 93 CE to migrate thereafter to Central Europe, where they mingled

The pastoral nomads developed a way of life perfectly adapted to their geography, no less refined and sophisticated than their urban contemporaries, even though historically they were considered and called barbarians. Since the nomadic pastoralists did not take up residence, they did not form empires or kingdoms but merged, clashed, and separated, creating fluid tribal confederations.

If the civilisations of the river valleys were isolated, the nomadic pastoral world was a single vast interconnected world, as a kind of lymphatic fluid between the settled cultures.

Ideas were transmitted from tribe to tribe as they negotiated with each other. If some event disrupted or impacted life, the effects were transferred from one end of this vast space to the other.

A Scythian/Pazyryk horseman, c. 300 BCE, State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg

In the early stages, somewhere between Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, nomads domesticated the first horse, invented stirrups and saddles and trousers, a garment with separate leg sheaths, and later, shirts and shirtsleeves, all of which greatly facilitated riding and mobility on horses. This allowed them to expand their areas of influence and create larger communities, which became even more divided and dispersed due to their way of life.

Two new inventions by the pastoral nomads were critical to their development: One was the chariot, which was a chariot with two wheels instead of four that allowed them to turn and pivot on themselves. Roads and further improvements to the wheels came with the chariots, which became spoked, elastic, and lightweight. A chariot pulled by a horse, a driver, a bowman, and a passenger with an ax was a magnificent military unit.

A recreation of a nomadic military unit (a third passenger with an ax was also common)

But they improved their tools still further: the composite bow. The nomads of Central Asia figured out how to create a smaller and more powerful bow by gluing together several strips of wood planed to a uniform thickness with rubber from domesticated horses. Riders could keep them in their saddlebags and use them while riding. Invincible.

Civilizations that came into contact with nomads, like Chinese, Assyrian, and Egyptian, took the idea of a composite bow and improved it further. Tomb of Tutankhamen, who died in 1324BC, held few surviving composite bows. Chinese Shang Dynasty (from 1700 to 1100BC) knew about composite bows and used them on war chariots.

Some 5,000 years ago, somewhere between and north of the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, a language appeared that no longer exists because, being nomadic, it changed as they dispersed. This language family spread from India to Western Europe and is now known as the Indo-European family, although the Indo-Europeans were neither Indians nor Europeans. Curious.

Nomads trade weaves the web

Between 1500 BCE and 500 BCE, geography generated a new element on human culture: long-distance trade. Resources were unevenly distributed across the planet, so people could create value simply by moving stuff from one place to another. The further away they transported it, the greater the value-added. As soon as nomads domesticated beasts of burden, some people thought of embarking on long-distance trade as a way of life.

Unlike the usual, local, low-scale trade, long-distance trade was a different story. It was not a brilliant idea that came from someone clever. Nor did it develop in a precise time and place. As soon as there were farmers, herders, and fishers, long-distance trade was not long in coming.

The most famous of the trading routes established by pastoral nomads connecting the European, Indian, and Chinese; transmitted goods and ideas among civilizations.

It was undoubtedly a particularly prominent thread in the nomads’ daily life fabric. Because they lived on the move, they knew what products were available, and they could select products where they were cheap and trade them to get a good price. And, if the trade were lucrative enough, some savvy nomads would get rid of their troublesome herds of goats and make trade their sole occupation. 

Bukhara´s art form demonstrating the highest level of precision and devotion - Miniature painting. Silk Road merchants from Uzbekistan

Nomads, the link between non-"barbarian" civilisations.

Nomads did not wander just anywhere. Hunters went where they knew the business was. Herders went to rich pastures they already knew. The nomads were the ones who knew what was going on in the other civilisations, who had the big picture, and, of course, found out what each society needed and offered it to them. As traders, they travelled from one hotbed of trade opportunities to another.

These nomads-turned-traders found the most efficient routes between their destinations and used them on a stable basis. For the most part, geography determined where these routes should be. Thus, a predictable network of roads and paths appeared where trade was intense.

Villages located in the vicinity of the nodes of these networks inevitably became large and prosperous cities. Their main business was (apart from collecting the appropriate passage taxes from the authorities of the day) to sell comforts to the traders – hot meals, warm beds, dry shelter, drugs to drink or smoke, a little sex perhaps -. Moreover, they provided places where traders could mix and mingle with others from distant places, offering different goods: markets and bazaars.

Many caravans travelled through Khiva, the town was invaded and destroyed several times. The Arabs, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Amir Timur, and many others took over the city.

Petra is an example of the rise and fall of a great commercial centre that would never have existed were it not for geography that made it a key node. Petra, located in present-day Jordan, was situated in a geographic environment too harsh to establish farms or even raise herds of goats. Yet Petra became a tremendously wealthy and vital city simply because it was located on the rocky cliffs of a narrow gorge through which traders had to pass on their journeys from the Red Sea, the Levantine coast, and the ports of the Persian Gulf. Petra had a water conduit system that provided water for 30,000 inhabitants and even allowed for gardens in the desert.

At some point, however, the beasts of burden encountered a new competitor: ships.

Thought to have been established in 312 BCE, Petra was located at a junction that China, India, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Syria and southern Arabia used for trading spices and silk, among other products.

The beginning of the great trade civilisations

Large bodies of water were also conducive to long-distance travel, as trade goods from many different environments were channelled to their shores. Wherever people set out to fish, they could add long-distance trade to their skills and capabilities. It was easy for trading towns to spring up wherever ships could dock. And ships had a significant advantage over beasts of burden: they did not need to be fed, which reduced costs considerably.

As urban centres grew, so did the network of traders’ routes. By 2000 BC, several overlapping trade networks emerged in Eurasia, each with its cultural constellation. Three stood out (and still stand out): The Middle East was Asia Minor to Afghanistan across the Iranian highlands; The Mediterranean world, which was a network of maritime routes linking all the ports around the Mediterranean; and the Monsoon world, a vast network of maritime trade linking East Africa with Arabia, India, Malaya and Indonesia, and from there, indirectly, to China.

Current pastoral activity in the steppes of Mongolia

But these civilisations and how geography influenced their culture and way of life is another story, which we will look at in the following travel note of our…

...Journey to the East that continues so…. ...If you want to know how our Journey to the East continues, be sure to read the next post carefully … If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or input, please email us at We will be happy to answer them.

Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

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