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The generic title encompasses the varied ethnic groups who have at times inhabited the steppes of Central Asia, Mongolia, and what is now Russia. They domesticated the horse around 3500 BC, vastly increasing the possibilities of nomadic life, and subsequently their economy and culture emphasised horse breeding, horse riding and nomadic pastoralism; this usually involved trading with settled peoples around the steppe edges. They developed the chariot, wagon, cavalry and horse archery and introduced innovations such as the bridle, bit and stirrup, and the very rapid rate at which innovations crossed the steppelands spread these widely, to be copied by settled peoples bordering the steppes.
"Horse people" is a generalized and somewhat obsolete term for such nomads, which is also sometimes used to describe hunter-gatherer peoples of the North American prairies and South American pampas who started using horses after the Europeans brought them to the Americas.
Early periods in Chinese history involved conflict with the nomadic Rong and Xiongnu peoples to the west of the Wei valley. Iron and bronze was supplied from China. Scythia was a loose state or federation covering most of the steppe that originated as early as 8th century BC, composed mainly of people speaking Iranian languages, and usually regarded as the first of the nomad empires. The Roman army hired Sarmatians as elite cavalrymen. Europe was exposed to several waves of invasions by horse people, from the Cimmerians in the 8th century BCE, down to the Migration period and the Mongols and Seljuks in the High Middle Ages, the Kalmuks and the Kyrgyz and later Kazakhs, down into modern times. The earliest example of an invasion by a horse people may have been by the Proto-Indo-Europeans themselves, following the domestication of the horse in the 4th millennium BCE (see Kurgan hypothesis). Cimmerian is the first invasion of equestrian steppe nomads that is known from historical sources. Their military strength was always based on cavalry, usually marked by prowess as mounted archers. Kurgan is a general term for steppe burial mounds, which sometimes contained very elaborate burials.
The concept of "horse people" was of some importance in 19th century scholarship, in connection with the rediscovery of Germanic pagan culture by Romanticism (see Viking revival), which idealised the Goths in particular as a heroic horse-people. J. R. R. Tolkien's Rohirrim may be seen as an idealised Germanic people influenced by these romantic notions. Tolkien's Wainriders of eastern Rhûn recall ancient steppe peoples like the Scythians. Similarly, George R. R. Martin's nomadic Dothraki people are heavily influenced by the lifestyles and cultures of historical horse people.
Nomadism persists in the steppelands, though it has generally been disapproved of by modern regimes, who have often discouraged it with varying degrees of coersion.
a Perhaps a Sprachbund.
Chronologically, there have been several "waves" of invasions of either Europe, the Near East, India and/or China from the steppe.
- Bronze Age
- Proto-Indo-Europeans, see Indo-European migrations, Kurgan theory, and the later Indo-Aryan migration theory
- Matossian Shaping World History p. 43
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