The birth of Eurasia

Brian Fagan reviews Barry Cunliffe’s masterful ‘big history’ book that traces the development of Eurasia from the first farmers to the expansion of the Mongols.


Tracing the development of Eurasia: the upper reaches of the Orkhon valley in the central Mongolian steppe. This fertile, well-watered valley was the centre for Turkic, Uighur, and Mongol cultures.

Eurasia tends to be a blank on archaeological maps. Enormous distances, harsh climatic conditions, formidable linguistic challenges, and politics had been almost insurmountable obstacles until recent years, but a growing interest in the famed Silk Road and an accelerating tempo of field research has broken down many barriers. Barry Cunliffe’s By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean achieves what would have been near impossible a generation ago – a comprehensive, nuanced story of 10,000 years of the Eurasian landscape and its people.

Cunliffe writes about a tapestry of movement, travel, and what he calls the ‘rhythms’ of the redistribution of resources, what we archaeologists call ‘exchange’ (or indeed ‘trade’). The landscapes he describes are enormous, the geography unfamiliar to most Westerners. His history is a complex mosaic of archaeology, climate change, and ecology, of geography, genetics (wisely used sparingly), history, and other sources. His book opens with a description of the land and the widely varied opportunities it offered to its ancient inhabitants. Environmental diversity with its deserts, favoured ecotones, and steppes created constant restlessness, and occasional tsunamis of aggressive movement. Above all, Eurasia was a land of movement, interaction, and connectivity. Thanks to clear description and comprehensive, nicely designed maps, the reader embarks on the main narrative with a good sense of obscure geography, essential to the story.

Cunliffe then focuses attention on what he calls ‘the Domestication of Eurasia’ from 10000 to 5000 BC. Here he explains how a palimpsest of hunter-gatherer societies lived in a broad range of environments, striving to adapt to climate change and population growth after the Ice Age. These adaptations included food production. Herein lies one of the great strengths of By Steppe. The narrative moves effortlessly far beyond Eurasia itself into neighbouring landmasses. We learn about Abu Hureyra in Syria (one of the oldest farming settlements in the world) and the spread of food production into Europe, but also about the Indus Valley of Pakistan and rice agriculture in China. By 4000 BC, deserts and mountains separated agricultural zones in the east and west. Only the Eurasian steppe offered ready contact between them.

Global connections: the site of Palmyra. Beyond lies the vast expanse of the Syrian desert.

Centrality of the steppe

Having set Eurasia on the global stage, Cunliffe then looks at the centrality of the steppe from 5000-2500 BC, turning especially to horses and copper, and pointing out that a rider on horseback setting out from the Great Hungarian Plain in spring could reach Mongolia before winter. The steppe was a remarkable corridor, the place where horses and chariots first came into use. Even minor climate change in these often semi-arid and desert landscapes played a decisive role. For example, between about 3500 and 3000 BC, conditions became drier, forcing local people to shift from farming to herding. At this point in the book, most of the discussion revolves around Eastern Europe and the Caspian-Pontic steppe. This is a small area by the standards of the narrative, but was a region of decisive human inventiveness. Exponential population growth in Mesopotamia coincided with the development of copper and gold metallurgy in southeast Europe. Most important of all, the people of the steppe domesticated the horse and soon rode it. They also turned to largescale wool production from sheep herding. This was the time when networks of connectivity developed between previously largely self-contained regions, especially in the west. The east remained constrained by deserts and mountains.

Thereafter, he tackles the opening of the Eurasian steppe over a thousand years after the mid-3rd millennium BC. Mobile herding intensified and spread beyond the Altai into Mongolia. New trade networks brought wheat, barley, and other Western crops, also goats, sheep, and even copper metallurgy, along the Gansu Corridor into China. By this time, enormous quantities of raw materials and luxuries passed along Eurasian trade networks to satisfy the rapacious demands of urban elites and rulers in Mesopotamia. Here again, the author looks at Eurasia from the broadest possible perspective, so one understands the wider context of such historical esoterica as the movement of people along the fringes of deserts and into the Tarim Basin. Eurasia became drier and colder after 1500 BC, and elements of steppe culture such as chariots and trained horse-teams arrive in China during the Shang dynasty.

The opening up of the steppe route forged the last link in what Cunliffe calls a ‘chain of connectivity’ that ran from China through the centre of Eurasia. Between 1600 and 600 BC, complex sedentary kingdoms in the east and west gradually developed – with much faltering – into empires. There were much more spectacular changes on the steppes, where warrior leaders emerged among pastoral nomads, leading multi-ethnic armies of mounted archers. We know of these predatory nomads from spectacular burial mounds that commemorated elite horsemen, buried in splendour surrounded by magnificent steeds. These were men who defied powerful monarchs like Persian King Darius I. They thrived off raiding both their neighbours and people on settled land to the south. Here we travel over much familiar historical ground alongside such monarchs as Cyrus and Alexander the Great, but the author keeps Eurasia at the centre of the story. This was a period when people of the steppes came in regular contact with empires and kingdoms along permeable frontiers. Furs, horses, and livestock brought durable goods and luxuries to nomads, a pattern of interaction that was to persist for many centuries. By the 3rd century BC, east–west networks were coming into existence, the prelude for the Silk Road of later times.

This gigantic stainless-steel statue of Chinggis Khan was unveiled in 2008 on the river Tuul. Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union, Mongolia has reinstated Khan as a symbol of their nationhood.

Connections and clashes

As the book progresses, Cunliffe connects the continents, the players being China, Parthia, and Rome, with the Eurasian nomads playing a pivotal role. Again, the author casts his net widely. For the first time, he is able to use historical sources to develop at least a provisional chronological network for complex population movements across the steppes. He also brings the distant oceans into play. We travel far from Eurasia to traverse the monsoon trade-routes of the Indian Ocean as the author describes how Eurasia became bound to a single global system. Buddhism had spread to the Tarim Basin. Soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall used Indian black pepper. The world was becoming smaller.

We then come to AD 250 to 650, which he describes as four centuries of perpetual war. After much bloodshed, the conflicts led to a new era of trade and cosmopolitanism, and the expansion of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Again, much of this is familiar ground, ending with the emergence of a new medieval world order, then, once again, westward movements of nomads, and the clashes of armies and ideologies. Under all this upheaval remained ancient rhythms of life and connectivities across Eurasia, epitomised by the Buddhist caves of the oasis town of Dunhuang in western China, with their magnificent archives. His narrative then takes us through the conquests of Chinggis Khan and the Mongol conquest of China, explaining how the death of the Khan interrupted an aggressive Mongolian incursion into Eastern Europe. The narrative ends in AD 1300, with the emergence of Portuguese, then Spanish, maritime enterprise, later followed by the British, French, and Dutch. Eurasia now became part of a new world system and, as Cunliffe concludes, ‘The oceans had at last triumphed.’

By Steppe is a masterpiece of multidisciplinary historical narrative, in which archaeology plays a leading part. With calm, almost magisterial assurance, Cunliffe overcomes the challenges of unfamiliar, often complex ecology and landscapes. He corrals a staggering array of specialised, often dauntingly obscure literature. Beautifully and clearly written, also lavishly illustrated, this is a work of astounding learning and succinct authority by one of the best archaeologists in the world. He also happens also to be a skilled storyteller. Revel in this wonderful book’s delights, for the archaeological blank is no longer. You won’t regret it.

Brian Fagan is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of numerous popular books on archaeology.

All images courtesy of Oxford University Press and Barry Cunliffe.


By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia
By Barry Cunliffe
Oxford University Press, £30, $49.95 (hardback)
ISBN 978-0199689170

This review was published in issue 77 of Current World Archaeology.