Who Were The Andronovo? Bronze Age Culture Of The Eurasian Steppe
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that our earliest origins lie somewhere far away from our current homeland. When Europeans are considered, modern history and science tell us that our languages and many of our traditional, ethnic cultural traits all lie in our shared ancestors: the Indo-Europeans. A good portion of our DNA has Indo-European origins, and this opens up a whole wealth of information and studies into our distant past. But where did the Indo-Europeans originate? When asking this question, we have to look back many thousand years into the past, and travel to regions that have always been a hotspot for human development. One such region is the Eurasian Steppe and Western Siberia, where sprawling archaeological cultures dominated the region and highly influenced the development of early civilizations. The Andronovo culture is one of these, and is considered to be a crucial part of the earliest Indo-European history.
Discovery Of The Andronovo
The Andronovo culture covered a vast portion of the Eurasian Steppe and Western Siberia. As such, it shouldn’t be seen as a single unified culture, but rather as a family of cultures. In academic speech, an “archaeological culture” is considered as an “aggregate of archeological features, similar to each other with a coherent repetition of styles and characteristics and differentiated from other aggregates of archeological features”.
In simpler terms, a “culture” is therefore a collection of archaeological remains that are dated to a certain time period and which share cultural traits and local peculiarities, both of which make it distinct from other cultures.
Evidence for this culture was first discovered in 1913, by Russian archaeologist S.A. Teploukhov. In that year, he excavated a series of burials in the Andronovo valley of the Minusinsk region of Southern Siberia.
Minusinsk is an exposed and isolated area ( Public Domain )
The so-called “ Minusinsk Valley ” was a hotspot for ancient cultures, and has yielded many finds over the years. However the new finds he excavated were markedly different from earlier finds from the Afanasievo or Okunev cultures that were already known in the area.
In time, the Soviet archeologists became certain that they were dealing with a wholly unique archeological culture, entirely unconnected from what was known about the area.
Teploukhov’s first discoveries were burials. He excavated several burial grounds containing skeletal remains almost exclusively in crouching positions, accompanied with richly decorated pottery. It wasn’t until 1927, after a long period of thorough excavations along the tributary valleys of the Yenisey River, that Teploukhov coined the name “Andronovo Culture”, thus christening this set of unique finds and opening a whole new chapter in historiography and archaeology that was to come.
A Vast Territory And A Dominant Culture
The Andronovo cultural zone covers a vast territory within western Asia. At its western boundary it reaches to where the waters of the Volga and Ural rivers mingle, coming into contact with the Srubnaya culture.
To the east, it extends all the way towards the Minusinks Valley, and to the south it extends all the way towards the Pamir, Koppetdag and Tien-Shan Mountains. The northern border is indistinct as the grasslands give way to a taiga landscape.
These boundaries could be observed only decades after the discovery of this culture, when subsequent excavations were made across the Soviet Union. What Teploukhov discovered years later, after these excavations, was that he had misnamed his new find. The village of Andronovo near the Yenisey river was only the eastern boundary of a culture that covered a far larger area than he had anticipated.
The Andronovo culture covered a vast area of Eurasian steppe (Dbachmann / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Nowadays, the Andronovo culture is dated to roughly 2,000 BC in the Bronze Age , from where it is thought to have flourished until 900 BC. Since its discovery in the early 20th century, a lot more has been revealed, and all of it helped to piece the puzzle together and present a well-defined picture of the crucial aspects that make this culture unique.
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The people belonging to the Andronovo culture family had unique burial traditions. The archaeology tells us that these groups preferred burials within rectangular stone “cists” or pits, which were often covered with a capstone or a simple wooden lid. Graves were sometimes surrounded by stone fences, and even with certain stone arrangements that perhaps marked the burial of an important individual.
People were usually “inhumated” with the interred body positioned to lie on its left side, head towards the west. The legs were bent at the knees in a fetal position and hands placed close to the face. Scholars view this as a ceremonial funerary practice, perhaps one that mimics the fetal position of newborns, and in that way connecting death with a new birth.
Grave Goods Of A Matriarchal Society?
One interesting aspect shows us that certain groups within the Andronovo culture were perhaps matriarchal societies. This is proposed due to the fact that male skeletons (as a rule) have little grave goods buried with them, and these are almost exclusively ceramics and pottery.
On the other hand, female skeletons had jewelry buried with them, typically beads arranged on their feet or body, perhaps indicating richly decorated clothing. And within the graves of children, shaped sheep bones are found that could have been parts of a game.
Female burials give us a good insight into the bronze items that were considered lavish enough to be funerary items. These are often bracelets, made of thin convex and concave bronze plates, commonly having spiral decorations. Pendants with spirals are also found, as are earrings with beads and pointed decorations. Sometimes, these are covered in gold foil.
Typical Andronovo pottery (Schreiber / Public Domain )
As mentioned, almost all burials contain clay vessels. These are almost exclusively set near the head, oriented to the west and open topped. These were undoubtedly vessels filled with food or drink, funerary offerings that were intended to serve the deceased on their journey to the afterlife. The clay vessels of the Andronovo culture were richly decorated, characterized by intricate geometric decorations near the edges, often showcasing a classic ancient “meandering” pattern.
Expert Cattle And Horse Breeders
Similarities in settlement construction are one of the key traits shared across the Andronovo culture. The settlements often consisted of up to ten houses, which were large and rectangular, sometimes measuring even 30 to 60 meters (100 to 200 feet) in length. These houses were semi-dugouts, with the lower part of the house dug into the earth and upper walls made from stones or wooden logs.
Large quantities of domesticated animal bones are almost always discovered in these settlements, usually horses, sheep and cattle. Their presence on such quantities in the settlements suggests the people of the Andronovo culture were skilled in animal husbandry.
On occasion, dog bones have also been discovered, but interestingly, pig bones are not. This seems to be indicative of a need for mobility, as pigs do not travel well. Bones of wild animals are also rarely found.
Besides the remains of animals, tools are frequently found. Pestles and mortars, stone grinders, hoes and bone awls, and even children’s games: these were the everyday objects in the lives of these ancient peoples.
Of special interest to researchers were discoveries of horse remains. In the Andronovo culture, the horse played a crucial role, being used both for riding and for agriculture. A recent study on horse remains revealed that the people of this culture had taught themselves to ride horses many centuries earlier than what was believed at first.
Horses are well suited to the Eurasian steppe (Togzhan Ibrayeva / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Radiocarbon dating on two buried horses revealed that one was a 20-year-old stallion, and another was an 18-year-old mare. The ages offer a telltale clue that suggests that horses were ceremonially buried with the individual they served in life.
Certain burials also revealed remains of horse chariots, dated to as early as 2,000 BC. This is indicative of the classic steppe equestrian elite , later connected with the Scythians. Certain scholars propose that the Andronovo peoples were active in horse breeding, and had access to three distinct horse types: the small, medium, and tall highbred horse.
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The medium horses are the predominant type uncovered in archaeological finds, while the tall highbred horse is found most often in ceremonial burials. It is likely that these latter larger horses were reserved for war chariots, elite warriors, and tribal leaders.
Was This The Birth Of The Famous Scythian Horsemen?
The Andronovo peoples therefore appear to have been skilled, semi-nomadic pastoral herders. They often relocated their settlements, perhaps every 20 years, in search of better grazing grounds for their herds.
When their settlements and pastures were affected by climatic changes and seasonal floods, the Andronovo peoples gradually developed the practice of seasonal grazing. This meant that the herds would be led to high pastures in one period, and returned at another.
It is clear that animal herding was a big part of the Andronovo economy, alongside agriculture. Discoveries show a much higher number of cattle remains at sites associated with this culture, when compared to other neighboring sites.
Of course, with the passing of time and centuries, the Andronovo Culture slowly faded out and was integrated into other cultures. People migrated, different cultures mixed together, and new and distinct identities emerged over centuries.
Karasuk graves had similar rectangular, stone lined pits to those of the Andronovo (Боковенко Н.А. / Public Domain )
In its eastern reaches, Andronovo was succeeded by the similar, but distinct Karasuk culture. The Karasuk peoples were clearly influenced by the Andronovo culture, but were even more mobile and more oriented towards metallurgy. They too were mobile farmers and herders, but extensively mined tin and copper and excelled in creating complex metal weapons and artifacts.
The Karasuk peoples are most often identified with the later-emerging Scythians, famous horseback warriors of the steppe. The Karasuk peoples – whose origins lie in their connections with the Andronovo Culture – developed a rich and realistic depiction of animals in their metalwork. And it is this style that would characterize the Scythian tribes of later ages.
In modern times, the Andronovo culture has been consistently connected to the birth of the Indo-Iranian ( Aryan) peoples. Both are associated with the invention of the horse-drawn spoke-wheeled chariot around 2,000 BC, and numerous other parallels are drawn between them.
One major piece of evidence proposed by scholars is the large distribution of Iranian place-names and toponyms all over the area of the Andronovo cultural lands. Further evidence is the later dominance of Iranian peoples, such as the Scythians, Alans, and Sarmatians, in the territory of the Andronovo culture.
A Culture That Set The Bar High
But this is only a single theory, and it is repeatedly challenged and questioned amongst scholars and historians, with numerous prominent scholars divided in their opinions. Some say that the lack of funerary finds below the Oxus River does not fit with that theory.
However, the Russian archeologist Elena Kuzmina has argued that the spoke-wheeled chariot presents definitive proof that identifies the Andronovo culture as Indo-Iranian. Her extensive work, “The Origin of Indo-Iranians”, still remains as one of the leading sources on the Andronovo culture.
Later chariot model recovered from the Oxus River region (BabelStone / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Nevertheless, however we look upon this exciting ancient culture, we can quickly understand its impact and importance on human development in the Eurasian steppe. Whether or not it is the direct precursor to the Indo- Iranians does not matter: it is still a crucial stepping stone towards the emergence of that classic steppe society.
The Andronovo society was one of farmers, metalworkers, and fierce horse-riding chariot warriors. The development of these cultural traits was key for the migrating tribes of Indo-Europeans, and was later shown to be hugely effective as they swept across Europe and changed the world for good. The peoples of the Andronovo culture, and those similar to them, may be the key to understanding how these later cultures developed, and where these fierce peoples came from.
They remain the focus of archaeological and historic studies to this day.
Top Image: The Andronovo were skilled horse breeders. Source: Arthorse / Adobe Stock.
By Aleksa Vučković
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Frachetti, M. 2009. Pastoralist Landscapes and Social Interaction in Bronze Age Eurasia. University of California Press.
Grigoriev, S. 2021. Andronovo Problem: Studies of Cultural Genesis in the Eurasian Bronze Age. De Gruyter. [Online] Available at: https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/opar-2020-0123/html
Kuzmina, E. E. 2007. The Origin of Indo-Iranians. BRILL.
Kuzmina, E. E. 2008. The Prehistory of the Silk Road. University of Pennsylvania Press.