Herodotus came as far as the Urals. “No one knows exactly what lies north of that country,” he tells us. The Greek ethnographer left behind detailed descriptions of the nomadic people at the end of his world. He gives the mounted people of the Eurasian girdle of steppes the generic name Scythes, which included the Sarmations, Massagetae, and Saks.

The Land of Seven Rivers lies in southeastern Kazakhstan. The conditions of its natural landscape and its favorable location made it an important living space for the people of the historical steppe region, for example for the Saks, as has been learned from numerous pieces of evidence from the Bronze and Iron Ages.

In particular, the “pyramids of the steppe” (Hermann Parzinger), the cairns or “kurgans”, some of which are gigantic, provide information on the culture of the people of the steppes and on their living space.

In one of these, for example, researchers found the “golden man of Issyk”, a warrior in gold-studded garb. Artifacts of indescribable beauty convey an impression of the outstanding craftsmanship of these ancient people and raise research questions for prehistoric archaeology. But evidence from their material culture, for example the furnishings of the interior of the kurgans, is not the only data we have about a civilization that has provided no written testimony.

For geo-scientists, the cairns’ orientation in the landscape and their positions in relation to each other are interesting. Iron Age kurgans are well known, but the Bronze Age ones are difficult to find; river floodplains and the foothills of mountain ranges were the preferred areas of investigation. Researchers asked what kind of hierarchies they may deduce from the furnishings, but also from the cairns’ size and position in the landscape. For example, did the graves of rulers have a function as central sites?

Changes in the Economy

One of the overarching questions had to do with the rise of cultivated landscape from nature. What kind of agriculture was carried out? How was animal husbandry practiced? What was the relationship between them? For at some point in time, the economy of the Land of Seven Rivers changed. The cultivation of plants recedes. Instead, the inhabitants intensify livestock breeding. Aside from sheep and goats, there are horses, which are used as draft animals and riding mounts. Mobility increases. Routes become shorter and trade relations expand very rapidly. Waging war also becomes easier. Had the climate become drier? Did mounted nomads overlay a settled culture? Where did they come from?

Pollen analysis and the study of botanic macro-remnants aimed to provide information on the dominant forms of vegetation in the Land of Seven Rivers and on their changes over time. The positions and distribution of the kurgans was determined with the aid of aerial photographs and satellite images. At the end stood the big question: Were there climatic or political reasons for the change in forms of economic activity? Or was there an interplay between the two?

Together, the researchers reconstructed a society of the past, embedded in the landscape in which it lived, the Land of Seven Rivers from the late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age.