From their perch in the heavens they could witness solemn oaths between the men of the steppe

Monday, January 23rd, 2023

Razib Khan describes the whirlwind of wagons that swept through Eurasia 5,000 years ago:

This eruption of warrior ferocity five thousand years ago was triggered by an economic revolution that swept across Eurasia, the advent of an unbeatable new cultural toolkit that finally harnessed the full productive potential of the cattle, sheep and goats that had long been viewed as simply mobile meat lockers in agricultural societies. Though these animals had already been domesticated by 8500 BC, it took millennia to perfect milk, cheese and wool production, and the harnessing of oxen as beasts of burden. North of the Black Sea, this revolution arrived around 3500 BC, as small groups of farmers huddling on river banks shifted from a mixed agro-pastoralist production system eking out a living cultivating wheat in an unforgivingly short growing season, to one of pure pastoral nomadism that turned over the vast grasslands around them to massive herds of animals.

Within a few generations, these people, known as the Yamnaya to archaeologists, were both grazing their cattle in the heart of Europe and driving their sheep up to the higher pastures of the Mongolian Altai uplands. This 5,000-mile distance (8,000 km) was spanned in just a few generations by the former farmers. Mobility was the first result of the switch to nomadism, as fleets of wagons began to roll across the steppe, like swarms of lumbering migratory villages, eternally bound for greener pastures. But far beyond a simple shift in aggregate economic production, many later knock-on effects were to reshape the culture of Eurasian societies, some of which continue to impact us down to the present.

Foremostly, the status and power of males rose within these cultures, in tandem with the shift to nomadism. Almost all contemporary nomadic pastoralists are patrilineal and patriarchal, so identity and wealth are passed from father to son, just as with the Plains Indians. Men occupy all of the de jure political leadership positions, if not all de facto ones. This is in contrast to rooted farming cultures, which exhibit more diversity in social arrangements, from the patriarchal Eurasian river-valley civilizations to the matrilineal horticultural societies of tropical Africa and Asia. Even within India, the cultures of the wheat-based northern plains were strongly patrilineal, with wives being totally unrelated to their husbands, and always moving to the households of the men they were to marry. In contrast, in tropical Kerala far to the south many groups cultivating rice, bananas and coconuts were matrilineal, with husbands moving to the villages of their wives, and the primary male figure in some boys’ lives even routinely being their maternal uncle.

For nomads though, the switch to livestock as the primary source of wealth and status increased male clout and importance to universally high levels. Whether they are Asian Mongols or African Maasai, herder societies are dominated by male kindreds that control the movable wealth in the form of livestock, and it is their role to on the one hand protect the herds and drive them to more fertile pastures, and on the other steal animals from neighbors. In nomadic societies, paternal kin groups provided exclusively for their women and children. It was senior men in these groups that accumulated wealth and status they could pass on to sons, resulting in a very strong concern over paternity, so as to avoid investing in the offspring of men outside of their lineage. After all, these men strived for wealth and status in the first place to produce sons who would continue their legacy. And just as they were fixated on their sons, nomadic societies were also punctilious in revering the memories of their forefathers. The Bible’s older books are littered with “begats” a dozen deep, Norse sagas begin with a recitation of half a dozen steps of descent from father to son, and the earliest Indian texts are fixated on royal genealogies.

These ancient nomadic obsessions continue down to the present. The kingdom of Jordan is still ruled today by a direct paternal descendent of Hashim ibn Abd Manaf, Muhammad’s great-grandfather and the progenitor of the Ban Hashim clan to which he belonged, 1,525 years after he died. The lineage of Bodonchar Munkhag, Genghis Khan’s ancestor who founded the world conqueror’s clan two centuries before his conquests, still ruled Mongolia as late as 1920, nearly 700 years after Munkhag’s time.

But steppe patriarchy was reflected in more than just age-old customs and long-standing genealogies. It was more than an empire of ideas. Steppe patriarchy expressed itself in a material fashion. The Yamnaya nomads constructed massive burial mounds, kurgans, wherever they went. Within these vast mounds, they inhumed individuals of high status and greater power. The remains found skew heavily male. It is no surprise that just as they preferentially buried their honored male rulers under enormous mounds, these people worshiped male sky-gods. These male deities were culturally important, as from their perch in the heavens they could witness solemn oaths between the men of the steppe.


  1. Kgaard says:

    Great piece. The flip side of this is that when resources are easy and defense is not an issue, societies will revert to matriarchal to some degree. That’s the situation today. Though in the top echelons (where power is contested) it is still patriarchal.

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    One factor in matrilineal societies is that we always know for sure exactly who the mother was. Can’t be that certain about who was the father. Hence the Ancient Egyptian habit of passing the rulership to the daughter, while the son had to marry his sister to get the throne.

    Another factor was that — until the rather recent development of modern hygiene and medicine — deaths of infants were commonplace and childbirth was a form of Russian roulette for the woman. Some have estimated that even in Roman times a couple would have to have 10+ children to ensure that at least 2 of them would survive to breed the next generation. Hence the absolute societal need for women to focus on child-bearing & child-rearing if the society was to survive.

    Modern society does not care about the future. Thus it is acceptable for us to waste women’s lives sitting in government cubicles stamping pointless papers instead of bringing forth & bringing up tomorrow’s citizens.

  3. Jim says:

    Mr. Khan’s Aryan ancestors cry out for the steppe.

    To go forward, we must go back.


  4. Bomag says:

    “Modern society does not care about the future.”

    Modern society is actively destroying its future. Which is a kind of caring. I guess.

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