The Steppe Route was an ancient overland route through the Eurasian Steppe that was an active precursor of the Silk Road. Silk and horses were traded as key commodities; secondary trade included furs, weapons, musical instruments, precious stones (turquoise, lapis lazuli, agate, nephrite) and jewels. This route extended for approximately 10,000 km (6,200 mi). Trans-Eurasian trade through the Steppe Route precedes the conventional date for the origins of the Silk Road by at least two millennia.
The Steppe Route centers on the North Asian steppes and connects eastern Europe to north-eastern China. The Eurasian Steppe has a wide and plane topography, and a unique ecosystem. The Steppe Route extends from the mouth of the Danube River to the Pacific Ocean. It is bounded on the north by the forests of Russia and Siberia. There is no clear southern boundary, although the southern semi-deserts and deserts impede travel. The principal characteristic of the steppe landscape is its continental climate and the deficiency of moisture, which creates unstable conditions for farming. The steppe is interrupted at three points: the Ural mountains, the Altai mountains which gradually turn into the Sayan mountains in the east, and the Greater Khingan range; these divide the steppe into four segments that can be crossed by horsemen. The altitude of some mountainous barriers, such as the Altai Mountains, with elevations up to 4,000 metres (13,000 ft), had originally kept some regions self-contained.
The vast territory stretching alongside the Eurasia route is diversified and includes dry steppe, desert, mountains, oases, lakes, rivers and river deltas, lowland steppe, mountain steppe, and forest steppe regions. Its wildlife was a permanent source of inspiration for artists and early craftsmanship. Hippocrates reflected on the impact of climatic changes, on subsistence, and advanced the idea of their influence on the organisation of human communities, as an explanation to populations migration. The demographic pressure on farming areas on the Steppe Route probably led the more fragile groups located at the periphery of those farming areas to migrate in search of better living conditions. Since rich pastures were not always available, it fostered the transition to a nomadic existence. This lifestyle was conducive to human mobility and fostered a military culture necessary to protect herds and to conquer new territories. The specific geography of the steppe created an ecosystem capable of mixing critical development features, including the diffusion of modern humans, animal domestication and animal husbandry, spoke-wheeled chariot and cavalry warfare, early metal production (copper) and trade, Indo-European languages, and the political rise of nomadic civilizations.
As the Eurasian nomads are not known to have developed a written language, no one knows what they called themselves, and the various cultures along the steppe road are mostly identified by distinctive burial arrangements and delicate artifacts. The quality of the artifacts are a testimony of the degree of sophistication of the nomadic prewriting culture and craftmanship which dispells notions that nomadic communities were on average less developed than sedentary ones. The nomadic practices of herding and simultaneously farming, in which horse-riding warfare practiced by an elite played a central role spread in the area from around 1000 BCE. The steppe nomads were organized communities, rotating their homes a few times a year between summer and winter pastures and being expected and recognized by other neighboring communities. These groups interacted often, and they also traded and preyed upon settled people.
The predominant point of view is that the communities of the Eurasian steppe were clustered and not closely related from an ethnic point of view. On the one hand, each population had its own history. On the other hand, communities maintained close contacts with both their neighbors and with those further distant. French historian Fernand Braudel saw the presence of pastoral nomads as a disruptive force often interrupting periods of slow historical processes, allowing for rapid change and cultural oscillation.
New archeological sites such as Berel in Kazakhstan, an elite burial ground of the Pazyryk culture located near the border with Russia, Mongolia, and China at the junction of the Altai and Tarbagatai mountains along the Kara-Kaba River, showed that much work still needs to be performed to better understand the communities bordering this intercultural transportation route and assess unexcavated sites in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. The work confirmed that the semi-nomadic Arimaspians of the late fourth and early third centuries BCE were not only breeding horses for trade. These people were also savvy metallurgists, builders, potters, jewelers, woodcarvers and painters who left a durable influence at the confluent of the Eastern and Western world.
By the end of the Pliocene, tectonic activity had created the major mountain ranges and lowlands, including the Aral and Caspian Sea basins and the Sarykamysh depression; the primitive Syrdarya, Zeravshan, Amudarya, Uzboi, Murghab, Tedzhen, Atrek, and Gorgan river systems were formed. Cyclical climatic changes between the Pleistocene and Holocene epoch finally produced a warmer and less dry climate in the greater part of western Asia that led to the present-day configuration and ecology of the region. The first modern humans to migrate to Europe were hunter-gatherers; they probably started to move from Africa at the time of the Green Sahara episode. Fossils excavated in Mount Carmel, Israel in 2002, show that Homo Sapiens arrived earlier than initially thought at the gate of the Steppe route 177,000–194,000 years ago and possibly interbred with Neanderthals which inhabited some parts of Eurasia. The overall migration diagram of these populations is still unclear. Then, these hunter-gatherers were slowly replaced around 9,000 BCE by new migrants from the Near East who had superior subsistence capacities due to their knowledge of primitive farming.
The dominant position occupied by nomadic communities in the ecological niche is a result of their nomadic military and technical superiority and is thought to have originated in the North Caucasian steppes as early as the 8th century BCE. The post glacial period was marked by a gradual rise of temperatures which peaked in the 5th and 4th millennia. These more hospitable conditions provided humans with grasslands and more stable food supplies and resulted in a sharp increase in their numbers. The regular collection of wild cereals led to the empirical breeding and selection of cereals (wheat, barley) that could be cultivated. It also led to the domestication of animals (donkeys, asses, horses, sheep, goats predecessors) to stockbreeding. Although the quality and quantity of artifacts varied from site to site, the general impression is that the development of craftsmanship contributed to more stable settlements and a more precise definition of routes connecting certain communities with each other. The Aurignacian culture spread through Siberia, and as a testimony of its presence, an Aurignacian venus was found near Irkutsk, on the Upper Angara river. Traces of the Magdalenian culture were also identified in Manchouria, Siberia and Hopei. Pastoralism introduced a qualitative leap in social development and prepared the necessary base for the creation of ancient semi nomadic civilizations along the Eurasian Steppe Route.
The analysis of carbon and nitrogen isotopes of skeletal collagen of the same human remains helps to classify their dietary background and to characterize the economy of the steppe communities. Strontium isotope analysis helps identify the various faunal and human movements between various regions. Oxygen isotope analysis is applied to reconstruct drinking habits and climatic change impact on populations. The combination of these factors aims at reconstructing a more precise picture of the living conditions of the time. The analysis of 1,500 mitochondrial genome lineages helped dating the arrival in different regions of Europe of human hunter-gatherers who later developed a knowledge of farming. It was found that in central and south west Europe, these could mainly be traced to the Neolithic. In the central and eastern Mediterranean, the arrival of the first human migrants can be dated to the much earlier Late Glacial period.
The early acquaintance with a food-producing economy in the PontoCaspian Steppe is assigned to this period. The transition from a food-gathering to a food-producing economy through farming and stock-keeping, led to a profound social and cultural change. Hunting and river fishing have likely continued to play a significant role in subsistence, especially in the forest-steppe areas. This transition to animal husbandry played a critical role in the history of the rise of human society, and is a significant contributor to the "Neolithic revolution". Simultaneously, a new way of life emerged with the construction of more comfortable settlements for plant and animal domestication, craft activities (resulting in the wide use of ornaments) and burial practices, including the erection of the first burial mounds in the Eneolithic period (the transition between Neolithic and the Bronze age).
The Inner Eurasian steppelands were occupied, possibly since the fourth millennium BCE, by nomadic communities practicing extensive forms of horse pastoralism, wandering from place to places. This ensured that their contacts and influence would extend over large areas. The earliest evidence for small horse riding comes from the Sredny Stog communities of east Ukraine and with south Russia the domestication of the Bactrian camel date to c. 4000 BCE. This two humps heavy load carrier is one of the most adaptive animals in the world capable to withstand temperatures from 40 °C -30 °C. On the East of Eurasia, agriculture was likely started by Indo-European communities (Tocharians) established in the Tarīm Basin (northwest China) around 4000 BCE. On the West part of Eurasia, the writing revolution, dated from the same epoch originated from accounting in a primitive way and developed with the Sumerian concern to leave messages for the afterlife. In Inner China which must then also be represented as half of the territory of the PRC i.e. excluding Manchuria, Mongolia, Xinjiang and the Qinghai-Tibet plateau as the association of loosely connected "macro-regions", there have been discoveries of tortoise-shell carvings (e.g. Jiahu symbols) dating back to c. 6200-6600 BCE. For now, they qualify more as symbols rather than the evidence of systematic writing. Writing and accounting (calculus) have likely started independently on various areas of Eurasia (Mediterranean, Sumer and Mesopotamia) but appears to have spread relatively fast alongside the Route.
The transition period to the Bronze Age shows varying patterns in the different geographical regions of the steppe route, however, numerous craft activities involved the manufacture of ornaments, instrumental goods and domestic commodities. As early as the 6-5th millennium BCE (Vinča culture, situated in what is now Serbia), the Pontic-Caspian steppe can be traced as the homeland of copper production and then spread throughout the entire steppe zone over two millennia. At the beginning of the fourth millennium, copper technology was introduced in the Altai region by steppe herders. The Bronze age was marked by an abrupt cooling of the climate, which at the turn of the third-second millennium B.C. gave way to a new temperature rise more favourable to farming and herding. The dual use of a prehistoric cavalry and metal weapons probably laid the framework of a much more militarized and possibly more hostile environment, triggering the migration of the most peaceful - or weakest - homo sapiens populations to more remote parts of the steppe route.
Advanced craftsmanship such as metal-smelting and pottery production (painted vessels and terracotta sculpture) are found side by side with large areas covered with wasters from the production of ornaments made of semi precious stones : lapis-lazulis, turquoise, spinel, quartz. Economic prosperity led to an exceptional richness of artistic expression which was to be found in the smaller forms, particularly in painted ceramics, small carved objects, ornaments inspired by wildlife, and funerary gifts. It was also conducive to a more complex organization of society.
The trades on the Steppe Routes show that the East Asian silk did not only come from China. The Neolithic remains (4000-3000 BCE) of the Goguryeo kingdom (Korea) showed earthenware with silkworm and mulberry leaf patterns and small carvings in rock of silkworms. The records of the Three Kingdoms  noted that both confederacies of Byeonhan and Jinhan (later known as Silla and Gaya kingdoms in Korea), “had many mulberry trees and silkworms”, indicating that the silk produced on the Korean Peninsula was known in other countries from ancient times. In the late 3rd millennium BCE, military-oriented stockbreeding communities settled in Eastern Central Asia (Sayan-Altai, Mongolia). The Nephrite (jade) Road materialized, the minerals were quarried in Khotan and Yarkand and sold to China. Communities were even more mobile on the Steppe route with the intruduction of carts.
The end of the Bronze age on the Eurasian Steppe route shows that production and a new economic organisation led to the accumulation of riches by a number of families and new economic interactions. Their male leaders then became warlords clashing and striking alliances for the control of the best pastures or migrating to start what may become civilizations.
By 2000 BCE the network of Steppe Routes exchanges started to transition to the Silk Road. By the middle of this millennium, the “steppe route” cultures were well established. Slow moving groups following a heavy chariot with four plain wheels led by hunters and fishermen, who practised some form of productive economy, were gradually replaced or enslaved by herdsmen from the steppes and semi-deserts. Nomads rode small horses and knew how to fight from the horseback primarily with a bow which was the distinctive weapon from the steppe and sometimes even with a sword or a saber when he was more affluent. These mobile, energetic and resourceful communities using light war-chariots with wheels having a diameter up to one meter with ten spokes each drawn by horses, spread in many different directions. This evolution strengthened an already robust system of vigorous and widespread exchanges within and sometimes beyond the Inner Eurasian steppes. And these early systems of exchange depended largely on the role of intertwined pastoralist communities. This resulted in a complex pattern of migratory movements, transformations and cultural interactions alongside the steppe route. In the 2nd millennium BCE there were major shifts of population over a wide area of Central Asia, and the whole picture of ethnocultural development changed.
According to the writings of Roman historian Dio Cassius, Romans saw high-quality silk for the first time in 53 BCE, in the form of Parthian banners unfurled before the Roman defeat at the battle of Carrhae.
Various artifacts, including glassware, excavated from tombs in Silla were similar to those found in the mediterranean part of the Roman Empire showing that exchange did take place between the two extremities of the Steppe road. It was estimated that the travel time for commercial goods from Constantinople (Istanbul) in Turkey to reach Gyeongju in Korea would not exceed six months. The inter-relation of China with the steppe route resulted in the brilliant progress of the Chinese civilization in the Yin (Shang 商) dynasty on the appearance of three major innovations most probably imported from the Eurasian steppe western communities : wheeled transport, the horse, and metallurgy.
The common references which had been travelling alongside the Steppe Route can be traced from the Mediterranean to the Korean Peninsula in similar techniques, styles, cultures, and religions, and even disease patterns.
Steppe of East Ayagoz region, Kazakhstan.
Mongolian-Manchurian grassland region of the eastern Eurasian Steppe in Mongolia.