Horses, Camels, and Human Behavior

I’ve been reading a lot about the Russians, or more specifically the princes of Muscovy in the 1400s-1700s and their problems with horse nomads. The Crimean Tatars, the remnants of the Golden Horde, and other steppe peoples kept southern Russia, Galicia, and Poland-Lithuania busy for five hundred years. Reading the accounts of the princes of Muscovy as they tried to deal with the khans feels a bit like reading histories of the Old West, except for the language of the treaties and the shadow of the Ottoman Empire looming in the background.

Part of the similarity stems from the physical environment of that part of Russia. Like the area west of the 100th Meridian, the plains of the Don-Dniester basin are wide and not always well watered. The Indo-Europeans seem to have first appeared in the archaeological and linguistic record from not to far east of the region, and they like the much-later Tatars/Tartars were horsemen and cattle herders.  Although the black soil is wonderful for farming, it was first and foremost grassland. The Scythians, Amazons, Magyars, Mongols and others passed through the region, and eventually the Mongols settled, as much as members of a pastoral (in the herding sense) nomads and raiders settle down. By the 1400s there were towns and fixed settlements, but herding and raiding remained the Tartars primary source of income. Oh, and tribute payments from the Russian nobles and Poles and pretty much everyone who wanted to be left alone. Not unlike how the Spanish tried to settle and pay off the Comanches.

Also like the Spanish and Comanches, the princes of Muscovy and the Polish kings bribed the Tartars of the Golden Horde and other groups to attack each other. The Tartars, not being fools, used this to request (extort) larger gifts. The Slavs had good reason to keep the Tartars happy, or at least occupied with other matters, because tens to hundreds of thousands of prisoners were carried off during the larger raids, along with cattle and other valuables. People from Kiev or Muscovy would be sold in the slave markets of the Crimea or passed on to the Ottomans and others, or held for ransom. Remember, the English term “slave” and the German “Sklav” comes from “Slav.” Until the 1600s the majority of enslaved people west of the Ural Mountains came from Russia, Poland, and the adjacent lands, not from Africa.

Tartar raids also made expanding the farming frontier into those fertile, rich black lands very difficult. Even fortified towns would not protect people, and it was not until the late 1500s that the Muscovite princes had the strength to at least fend off Tartar attacks. The Time of Troubles, the civil war and famines that lasted from 1598 until the 1620s and 1630s allowed the tied to reverse, and it would be the 1800s before the Russians managed to bring all of Crimea and the Don basin under firm control.

If this sounds very much like the American West, horse nomads around the world have preyed on farmers since, well, probably since the domestication of horses and the discovery of the horse-bow. And not just horses, because camel-riding raiders preyed on sedentary African farmers all along the Sahel and in East Africa. Aggressive nomads in need of pasture do not consider farmers as worthy of respect,especially since (unless gunpowder, fortifications, and numbers combine) it is very easy for raiders to raid and run with almost no losses. The Austrians and Hungarians could attest to that as well, both during the early years of Magyar presence in the Danube lowlands, and later when the Ottomans used Tartar soldiers as light cavalry and scouts as late as 1700, sending them on raids well into what is now central Austria.

There are/were major differences, of course. Religion did not play a role in the American Indian attacks on Indian, Spanish, French, and Anglo-American settlements. The Tartars had embraced Islam and did wage religious war against the Orthodox infidels. Spanish governors had more flexibility than did Russian diplomats, and once the Comanches drove the Apaches off the Plains (at the urging of the Spanish), no third-party used the Comanches against the Spanish or Americans. The same could be said of the Dakota/Lakota once they became Plains pastoralists. As I understand, and I freely admit the history of East Africa is one of my weak areas, the Somali tribes operated on their own as well, rather than working for a greater power, even intermittently. I could be wrong.

The Dakota/Lakota were quite upfront about establishing an empire, reminding US agents that the Anglos had their territory so why should the Sioux not do the same? That’s not quite what the envoys wanted to take back to D.C. any more than the Russian envoys wanted to take threats and refusals back to Moscow.

Comparing the various steppe peoples and mounted nomads provides some fascinating parallels and differences. Humans around the world pick up, or develop independently, certain practices and habits when placed in similar niches. Reading about Muscovite attempts to tame their southern and eastern borders feels very much like reading the Spanish colonial records from New Spain, but with different names and more letters and documents written by the Tartars to the Muscovites than ever the Comanches and other Plains people sent to D.C. or Madrid.


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