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painting of a pale Asian woman with dark hair

Khitan woman, ca. 1000 AD (Musee Guimet, Paris)

From prehistory right through the Middle Ages, most Central Asian people’s most important attachments were to their family and their clan or tribe. Men, women, boys and girls wore clothes that identified which clan and which family they belonged to. Kids learned the stories of their clan, and they sang the songs of their clan.

Because families were so important in Central Asia, women held more power there than they had in West Asian or Chinese states. Women had more power in Central Asia than in ancient Greece or Rome. One in five Scythian women was buried with armor and weapons. Greek stories of Amazons may come from Scythian women fighting as soldiers in Central Asian battles. Some Central Asian people had one woman marrying several men at the same time.

Like everywhere else in Asia and Europe at this time, some Central Asian people were slaves. Often people became slaves when they were captured in a war, or because their parents were poor and sold them into slavery. Genghis Khan himself was a slave when he was a boy. Most Central Asian slaves lived like other poor people in their area, herding cattle, spinning, making felt, knotting carpets, and carrying water.

Also like everywhere else, most Central Asian kids didn’t go to school. Kids needed to learn how to ride horses, and how to shoot a bow, and how to make cloth, more than they needed to read or write. But once the Silk Road was established, a lot of people in Central Asia did get rich enough to send their kids to school. Buddhist monasteries opened good schools for boys and girls. With the coming of Islam, boys went to Islamic schools, but girls couldn’t go. Some of the boys grew up to be scholars, or doctors, or philosophers.

More about Islamic schools

More about the Scythians

Bibliography and further reading about Central Asian people:

Buddhist monks
Islamic schools home