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Central Asian steppe - brownish green grass and blue sky all the way to the horizon

Central Asian steppe

What is the steppe?

By the time the first Neanderthals reached Central Asia, maybe about 100,000 BC, most of Central Asia was covered by hundreds of miles of tall grass, like the prairies of South Dakota or Nebraska in North America. There were hardly any trees, and not much water. We call this grassland the steppe.

More about early primates
All our Central Asia articles

Permafrost and tundra

In the north, the steppe was colder, and the ground stayed frozen even in the summertime– we call that permafrost, and we call the northern steppe the tundra.

Ural mountains in mist with pine trees

Ural mountains

Wild animals and plants

Further south, it was warmer, but there was still not enough water for farming, so people did not farm there.

More about hunting
And about gathering

At first they hunted wild aurochs and horses, and camels, and gathered wild grain and apples and wild carrots and many related herbs – dill, parsley, caraway, cilantro, celery, etc.

What is an auroch?
Where do horses come from?
How about camels?
History of apples
Central Asian food

Nomads and herders

Later, when they had tamed horses to ride, people kept big herds of cattle, and rode horses like cowboys to watch their cattle. The steppe made it easy for people on horses to travel long distances very fast, so people used it as a kind of road to get from Europe and West Asia to China. Animals and plants also traveled across the steppes, so that many different kinds of plants grow there and animals live there.

History of cattle
When did people first ride horses?
Central Asian economy

Gobi desert - wind-blown sand and blue sky

Gobi desert

The Ural Mountains

Several mountain chains cross the steppes. The biggest one is the Ural mountains, most of the way west towards Europe. Up in the mountains, there are rivers and pine trees.

More about pine trees
The Ural Mountains

The south-eastern part of Central Asia is too dry even for grass to grow there. It is the Gobi Desert. Mostly people don’t live in the Gobi Desert.

How hot/cold does Central Asia get?

Because most of Central Asia is so far from any ocean, the oceans can’t help control its temperature, and it gets very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. Even in the Gobi Desert, it gets way below freezing in the winter, though there’s not much snow because there’s no water. On the steppe, there may be several feet of snow in the winter, and then temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius) in the summer.

More about snow

Climate change in Central Asia

Nobody knows yet whether the Medieval Warm Period or the Little Ice Age affected Central Asia, but it seems likely.

What’s the Medieval Warm Period?
And what’s the Little Ice Age?

Possibly the warmer weather from about 800-1200 AD encouraged people to have more children and increased the number of people living in Central Asia: the Khitan, the Samanids, etc. Possibly, again, when the weather got much colder about 1200 AD, a lot of those people decided to leave and invaded West Asia and China, forming the Mongol Empire.

Learn by doing: grow some Central Asian herbs
More about the Little Ice Age

Bibliography and further reading:

Chinese environment
Mesopotamia environment home