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The emergence of the Scythians: bronze age to iron age in South Siberia.

The emergence of the Karasuk culture

Keywords: Bronze Age, Siberia, Minusinsk Basin, Andronovo culture, Karasuk culture, burial mounds, horses, pastoralism


The Minusinsk Basin includes the middle valley of the Yenisei River and the upper valley of the river Chulym (Figures 1 & 2). It is surrounded on three sides by wide belts of high mountains--the Kuznetsky Alatau and the Abakan range to the west, the western Sayan to the south and the eastern Sayan to the east. The mountains are covered with dense forest, but the basin itself is steppe land. In the north-west corner of the basin is the 'Tom-Chulym corridor', a belt of wooded steppe that in ancient times linked the territory of groups of the Minusinsk area and those of the Altay and Kazakhstan. The Minusinsk groups could communicate with the rest of the world only by traversing those few difficult mountain passes. They were thus relatively isolated even from their nearest neighbours (Gryaznov 1969:11). The Bronze Age of the area divides into two main cultural phases: the Andronovo culture that characterised the valley from the seventeenth century BCE, and the Karasuk culture that succeeded it in the fourteenth century BCE. Geochemical analyses on deposits from Kutudjekovo Lake in the Minusinsk Basin revealed climatic changes between the Andronovo and the Karasuk periods (Kulkova 2003: 255-74; cf Bokovenko: Figure 2, below). In the Andronovo period, the climate was semi-arid and slightly cool. From the beginning of the Karasuk period and later, the climate became more humid and cooler. Under arid climatic conditions the vegetation reacts quite sensitively to humidity, so the vegetation density increases as the humidity increases. This was the case in the Minusinsk Basin.


There is some settlement evidence for the Andronovo and the Karasuk periods, but the main focus of study has been on burial forms and practices. Russian scholars who excavated Andronovo and Karasuk sites have observed similarities as well as differences between the two (Teploukhov 1929: 43-4; Kiselev 1951: 135; Komarova 1952: 27; Khlobystina 1970: 125; Novgorodova 1970: 174; Vadetskaja 1986: 61; Grjaznov 1981: 31). But even though they continued the material cultural traditions of Andronovo, economic and social changes mark the emergence of the Karasuk, which appear to move from a sedentary to a more mobile mode of life. The aim of this paper is to assess the degree of these changes and seek their cause.


Six settlement sites of the Andronovo period have been identified and investigated in the Minusinsk Basin. Only at one site, Klyuchi in the Yenisei valley (Maksimenkov 1978: 469), were the remains of walls belonging to structures of some size identified, and they were probably pens for livestock rather than dwellings. The associated finds--pottery and animal bones--were insufficient to establish the nature of the buildings (Grjaznov 1969: 90).

Among domesticated animals, those of cattle were the most numerous, followed by sheep and horses in small quantities.

For the Karasuk period there is evidence from seven villages including Tunchuch (Sebas'tjanova 1977), Kopenskoe and Torgazhak (Savinov 1996). The settlements had large, rectangular, wattle-and-daub semi-subterranean dwellings, ranging from 3-260 [m.sup.2] in plan. The preservation of wooden beams and pillars at Torgazhak indicated buildings with roofs up to 3m high and the sophisticated architecture suggested permanent settlement, as opposed to nomadic or seasonal occupation. A large number of bones of domesticated animals have been collected on these sites, with average proportions of 50 per cent sheep, 23 per cent cattle, 16 per cent horses, and 11 per cent goats. In addition to pottery vessels, many bronze, bone, stone and pottery artefacts have been found: bronze jewellery (bracelets, finger-rings), bronze knife blades, awls, nails, bone stamps, arrow heads and cheek-pieces, stone mortars, pestles, and clay crucibles.


For the cemeteries we are better equipped to compare and contrast the two periods and I will here make use of the research carried out by G.A. Maksimenkov (1978: 52-86) on 228 tombs at 21 cemeteries and by myself on 2462 tombs from 121 cemeteries. Isolated from cemeteries of more ancient groups, Andronovo burials are located near lakes and rivers, mostly on the riverbanks of the Yenisei, in the south-west and centre of the Middle-Yenisei region (Figure 1). Usually, cemeteries include between 10 and 60 tombs. Thirty-seven cemeteries have been excavated so far, and up to now, no Andronovo sites have been found south of Abakan city.

By contrast, the distribution of the Karasuk burials was much more widespread--across the entire Middle-Yenisei region. One hundred and twenty one cemeteries have been excavated so far. Unlike the Andronovo funerary sites, most of the Karasuk cemeteries are vast clusters from several hundred to over a thousand tombs situated on the edges of rivers and lakes. There are also quite small cemeteries of no more than 5 to 15 tombs, but these are usually located at the foot of the mountains. The Karasuk cemeteries are separated from those of previous cultures, apart from those of Andronovo culture. Except for three isolated Andronovo sites in the extreme north-west of the region, the Karasuk people continued

to use Andronovo locations to bury their dead.

Funerary structures

In the Andronovo period, the burial structure consisted of an enclosure, circular or square, marked by a kerb made from stones placed edge-on (up to 70cm in height) or as walls made of bedded flat slabs (Figure 3). In some cases, the enclosure was covered by a low mound, rarely higher than 1.5m. Four variations of enclosure can be distinguished: circular ones with upright slabs or bedded slabs; or rectangular ones with upright slabs or bedded slabs. In this period, the most widespread enclosure type has a circular wall built with upright stone slabs.


In the Karasuk period, a stone-walled enclosure was invariably used. The four types of enclosures known in the Andronovo are still found but in different proportions, with rectangular upright-slab enclosures now dominating (Figure 4). Oval-shaped enclosures are also introduced. The enclosures were covered in two ways: either the whole enclosure was covered with a low mound or the space inside the surrounding wall was filled with earth and then covered with a layer of stone slabs. Unlike in the Andronovo period, there is a correlation between the type of walling and the ground plan of the enclosure (Figure 5). Upright stones are employed almost exclusively in rectilinear enclosures, either square or rectangular (97.5 per cent), while the majority of slab-built enclosures are circular (59.9 per cent).

The use of particular structures in the Karasuk period would seem to be geographically as well as chronologically sensitive. Rectangular enclosures now dominate in almost all areas of the Minusinsk Basin, except in the western and south-eastern areas where the square shape is more prevalent. The frequency of square enclosures is less widespread in the northern area, but increases in use to the south. This explains the fact that square enclosure types dominate in the cemeteries of the post-Karasuk period in the south of the region. Circular enclosures, characteristic of Andronovo culture, are more customary in cemeteries of the north-western and western areas. Mong the Yenisei to the south and south-east, the frequency of circular enclosures decreases. From that we can assume that the Andronovo tradition remained stronger in peripheral areas that were isolated from 'population centres' concentrated on the banks of the Yenisei in the mid-section of the Minusinsk Basin. In Andronovo type cemeteries, the great majority of the enclosures stand alone, and it is rare to find them adjacent to one another. The average size of the tombs is between 5 and 10m in diameter. In the very few that average between 22 and 30m in diameter, only adults were buried (but unfortunately, the sex is not often known). Each enclosure usually contains a single tomb, and when they contain two or three tombs, only infants are buried there. It is interesting to note that infants are buried either inside an enclosure but in a cemetery separate from adult ones, or were buried between enclosures for adults.

In contrast, the Karasuk cemeteries are mostly organised in clusters of 2 to 20 enclosures adjacent to one another. Isolated burials occur but are less common. Adults are placed centrally, while sub-adults were interred on their immediate periphery and infants even further beyond the periphery. However, although the rectangular, square and oval burial structures are most often clustered, the circular ones are mostly isolated, continuing the Andronovo burial practice (Figure 6). The smaller circular mounds, with a ground plan from 1 to 7[m.sup.2] mostly contain infants or sub-adults. The ones ranging from 7 to 30[m.sup.2] are less numerous, but still very common, and contain mostly males and females. The largest burial structures, from 40 to 100[m.sup.2], are rare. They usually contain a single tomb, always that of a male. We can suppose that the largest funerary structures, given the labour and energy expenditure necessary to build them, are those of high status persons. As in the Andronovo period, most of the funerary structures contain a single burial. However, funerary structures with two tombs or three tombs are found more often than before. In those tombs not only infants but also adults are buried.



In the Andronovo cemeteries, the graves are rectangular, always built in the centre of the enclosures, and sometimes lined with stout logs. Among those using stone, the most widespread type is a cist tomb, with a pit tombs lined with horizontally bedded stone slabs, but there are also hybrids, using both vertical and horizontal slabs (Figure 7: 1), and the rarest types are unlined. The great majority of the tombs are built at a depth of 1.5m, but some tombs are erected above ground level and are built up with bedded slabs.


In the Karasuk period, pits lined with stout logs no longer exist and cists using bedded stone have almost disappeared. Cists built as a pit faced with stone slabs (and covered with one or more stone slabs) remain the most widespread type in all areas of the Minusinsk Basin (Figure 7: 2). The relative frequency of the four stone types is shown in Figure 8. The Karasuk tombs are not as deep as Andronovo ones, at about 80cm deep. Only 5 per cent of the Karasuk tombs are built above ground level and those are mostly infant burials. They are covered with slab stones piled up in the shape of a circular mound.

It is undeniable that the different types of Karasuk tombs are geographically variable. Slab stone cists (FD) are the most represented type in all areas of the Minusinsk Basin. Cists with two sides of stone bedding (FH), more common in the cemeteries of Andronovo culture, are more numerous in Karasuk cemeteries located in the north, north-west, and west of the Basin, where the Andronovo tradition was stronger. Unlined pits, characteristic of the post-Karasuk period, are mostly found in cemeteries located in peripheral zones, outside the 'population centres' of the Yenisei riverbanks. Cists with two sides of stone bedding are more numerous in Karasuk cemeteries located in the north, north-west, and west of the Basin where the Andronovo tradition was stronger. Simple pits, also characteristic of the post-Karasuk period, are mostly found in cemeteries located in peripheral zones, outside the 'population centres' of the Yenisei riverbanks.

Burial practices

In the Andronovo period, inhumation is the most widespread treatment of dead. It is rare to find cremated remains in cemeteries (9 per cent) and this kind of treatment seems to have been only applicable to adults. The great majority of burials are individual. In the rare multiple burials, tombs contain both male and female skeletons. Eighty-six per cent of the dead were laid on their left side and in foetal position. Only 14 per cent of the dead in the foetal position were placed on their right, and placement on the right side was mostly applied to infant burial. Heads were oriented to the south-west, or less often to the west or west-south-west. This variation can be related to the position of the rising sun throughout the year. In the Karasuk period cemeteries contain only inhumations. As before, most of the burials (80 per cent on average) are individual. Only 20 per cent are multiple and most of those were associated with interment of infants. As in the Andronovo period, a large majority (84 per cent) of the dead were placed on their left sides, fewer on the right side (including infants) with legs slightly drawn up. A new burial posture was introduced, in which the dead were deposited in a stretched position, lying on their backs (9 per cent). This mode is continued into the post-Karasuk period.

The position of the head was reversed in the Karasuk so as to orient it to the north-east, east or east-north, the feet following the position of the setting sun throughout the year. Occasionally the head is oriented to the south-west, west or west-south-west, following Andronovo custom. In the post-Karasuk period, burial returned to the south-western or western orientations.


In the Andronovo period the deceased was buried very simply, and there were generally no artefacts except pottery vessels. Only occasionally some small bronze artefacts--beads, ear-rings (double ring of bronze wire), plaques, buttons, needles, knives- were found beside the skeleton (Figure 9). One pottery vessel was always placed in the tomb (more rarely two to three in the same tomb), facing the head of the deceased, or more rarely behind it. In some cases, birch-bark and wooden vessels have been preserved and found near the pottery vessel (Gryaznov 1969: 92). In a few cases, ribs and scapula of sheep or cattle were found near the pottery vessels.


During the Karasuk period, animal bones were always placed in tombs, close to pottery vessels, or at the feet of the dead. Most of the time, only one animal offering was placed in the tomb, and less often, two, three, and more rarely four to seven. Four kinds of bone were preferred: ribs, scapula, tibia and humerus. The quantity of animal offerings deposited in the tomb depended on the age and gender of the deceased. In the tombs of infants or sub-adult individual burials, one animal offering was usual. In adult burials two animal offerings were more common, and three or more animal offerings were deposited in particular male burials. In multiple burials, the quantity of animal offerings deposited was equal to the number buried. Sheep bones are found in the great majority of Karasuk tombs, cattle bones less often, and horse bones even more rarely. Sheep offerings were found without distinction in infant, sub-adult, male and female burials. Cattle offerings were found in the majority of male tombs, many fewer in female tombs and rarely in sub-adult tombs. Unfortunately, horse bones have been found in too small a quantity to make any generalisations.

One pottery vessel is generally placed near the head (more rarely two to five pottery vessels in a same tomb) in Karasuk tombs. Female burials usually contained jewellery (Figure 10) and hair ornaments (Figure 11), and awls and knives (Figure 12: 1-4). Bone combs and bronze pendants were usually found under or near the skull. Single or several earrings (double rings of bronze wire) are found at each side of the skull. On the chest were usually found ornaments such as cylindrical bronze beads, white beads in argillite or ornamental bronze plaques. Sometimes, there were bronze bracelets on the wrists, bronze finger-rings and bronze wire round the neck. Rarely, a knife with ring or lobed pommel is placed near the faunal remains. Male burials contain earrings and less often finger-rings; clothing ornaments including buttons and plaques; and 'simple' bronze knives placed near the faunal remains as in female burials, and more rarely (as the burials are mostly robbed), richly decorated knifes with zoocephalic or ring pommels placed at the waist (Figure 12: 5-9). Child burials contained fewer artefacts than adult tombs: some bronze jewellery, clothing ornaments and simple knives near the faunal remains.


During the Karasuk period, copper and bronze metallurgy developed to an unprecedented degree. Numerous copper alloy objects have been found in cemeteries and settlements, and mines and workshops have been investigated. Pottery moulds replaced the two-part stone moulds used by Andronovo artisans, and multiple copies of the same object were produced. At this time, the Minusinsk Basin became a production centre for prestige objects that were distributed widely inside and outside the region (Legrand 2004: 143-4).

Changes in pottery

Andronovo vessels were divided by G.A. Maksimenkov (1978: 63) into two forms: domestic and ceremonial, both coil-built (Figure 13A). The domestic type (Figure 13A: 4-6) consists of vessels of very simple form with the upper part, or the whole surface, covered with zigzags, chevrons or hatched triangles. The ceremonial pottery (Figure 13A: 1-3) consists of vases with carinated profiles, large shoulders and flat bases. The surface is covered with an intricate pattern of geometric ornament. Although G.A. Maksimenkov claims that only ceremonial pottery can be found in tombs, this is not entirely so since the so-called domestic pottery can also be found in tombs and ceremonial pottery is also found in settlements.


In the Karasuk period, pottery technology improved, but only one type of vessel is identified. It is still coil-made, but has an abundant sandy temper and is made thin-walled by hammering (Novgorodova 1970: 33). The surface is black to grey, and rarely red. It is burnished or smoothed and can be decorated with incised or stamped patterns. Vessels are globular or lens-shaped and of various sizes, seldom carinated, and in most cases have a rounded base (Figure 13B). Karasuk pottery from the earliest phase imitates Andronovo features such as a carinated profile, flat base, and dot-line, stamped motifs (triangles, rhomboids etc.) that cover the whole surface (Figure 13C). Pots with vertical straight sides imitating wooden or birch-bark Andronovo vessels are occasionally found. These features disappeared through time from the Minusinsk Basin, but remained in greatest proportion in the north-west and western part of the region. Most characteristic of the Karasuk culture are globular or lens-shaped bowls with a rounded base, undecorated or with motifs only applied to the upper part of the vessel such as double or triple, parallel lines, and 'dimples'. These characteristic vessels are widespread throughout the Minusinsk Basin, but are found in large numbers in cemeteries located on the Yenisei riverbanks.


Several significant trends may be observed in the transition from the Andronovo to the Karasuk culture, and call for interpretation. The observed rise in humidity during the Karasuk period would have increased the volume of grazing possible and supported larger flocks, so feeding a larger population. The faunal remains suggest that ovicaprids became the basis of the animal economy, and this in turn implies transhumance to the nearby mountains and seasonal mobility, as sheep stripped pastures surrounding the villages. The horse began to be of increasing importance as a means of transport, not only for traction but also as a mount. This is attested to by the increased quantity of horse bones found in settlements (one third of the quantity of sheep bones), suggesting that the Karasuk people possessed a considerable stock of horses (Gryaznov 1969: 103). Moreover, in Karasuk settlements such as at Kamennyj Log and Torgazhak, bone cheek-pieces with three holes (a type found on early Scythian models) have been excavated (Figure 14: A). The representation of a rider on a horse carved on a slab-stone from an enclosure in the Karasuk cemetery of KrestKhaja (Figure 14: B) also suggests that the riding of horses was widespread. The increase in the number of sites suggests an increase in population, so that by the end of the Karasuk period the population had multiplied by a factor of ten. Such a demographic explosion might have several explanations. Perhaps the arrival of Andronovo people in the Minusinsk Basin that began in the seventeenth century BCE did not stop with the emergence of the Karasuk culture. The latest anthropological analyses corroborate this fact: A.V. Gromov found similarities between Karasuk skulls recovered from cemeteries located in the north part of the Minusinsk Basin (above Abakan city) and Andronovo skulls of the High-Ob region and between Karasuk skulls of south cemeteries (below Abakan city) and Andronovo skulls of north Kazakhstan (Gromov 1995: 148; 2002: 26). DNA testing might be able to offer a correlation to this model, but it has yet to be attempted here. We may distinguish at least two contact zones: the north-west corner of the Basin by the 'Tom-Chulym corridor', the traditional route of contact and communication, and in the south-west by the Askiz River. The Minusinsk Basin, encircled by mountains, forms a natural shelter that would protect the local population from disruption by outsiders.


The role of metallurgy was prominent in the Karasuk economy and it exploited numerous and abundant local sources in the Minusinsk Basin. Progress in metal casting (use of moulds of pottery or metal, and no longer of stone) may have promoted mass production and thus expanded the output and the capacity for off-site and long-distance distribution (Legrand 2004: 144). The high increase in population may also have stimulated the metallurgical industry. In addition, increased mobility must have been a decisive factor in its widespread distribution.

These new resources and opportunities will, in turn, have led to a modification in the social structure. Funerary enclosure clusters built next to one another formed small family cemeteries. Adults were placed in central funerary units while sub-adults were placed in funerary units to their immediate periphery and infants to the external periphery. As the analysis of grave goods showed, the place of each member is clearly defined inside the family group according to age and gender. Infants were no longer buried in separate cemeteries but in adult ones, and were now surrounded by enclosures. We can suppose that the more elaborate attention accorded to children, and thus the raising of their social status, also implies an increase in hierarchy.

The difference observed in the arrangement and architecture of funerary enclosures, and in the graves goods of the Karasuk cemeteries, gives evidence for hierarchical social order based on a patriarchal system. The rare big circular burial enclosures 40 to 100m in diameter, with elaborate cist tombs in the centre, grave goods consisting of two of three vessels, several animal offerings, bronze knives, and so on, were those of elite males.


The comparative analysis shows that the Karasuk culture continued many traditions typical of the Andronovo. This suggests hereditary and cultural links between the two cultures. It shows that this transformation did not result from the arrival of a new culture group, but from changes in the local economy and way of life that occurred in the particular geographic and climatic context of the Minusinsk Basin. There was an increase in the farming of sheep, the use of horses, in the number of sites and in burial investment. From this we can deduce that the Karasuk culture expresses a rise in pastoralism, population, male hierarchy and mobility that occurred together.

By the end of the Bronze Age, important socioeconomic changes can also be observed in peripheral regions of the Minusinsk Basin (Tom River region, High Ob region) and more widely in other regions of the steppe zone. It would be interesting to compare the situation in the Minusinsk Basin with those in its vicinity in order to gain an understanding of the transformations in different geographical areas at the same time.

Many points still have to be further researched in order to complete our understanding of the emergence of the Karasuk culture, particularly in order to understand the degree and types of social complexity in Karasuk society. Moreover, it is crucial to study changes that occurred at the end of the Final Bronze Age (eleventh-tenth centuries BCE) in the Minusinsk Basin in order to estimate the role of Karasuk society in the emergence of the Tagar culture (Bokovenko, below).


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Sophie Legrand, University of Paris I (Email:
Figure 4. Relative numbers of burial types belonging to the Andronovo
and Karasuk cultures. CV--Circular with upright slabs; CH--circular
with horizontal bedded slabs; SV--square with upright slabs; SH--square
with bedded slabs.


CV 66 34
CH 13 145
SV 12 499
SH 2 18
Total 93 696

Figure 5. Correlation between shape and structureit Karasuk burials:
BL--middle-sized stones; DH--bedded stones; DV--uprightstones; CAR--
Square enclosures; OVA--oval enclosures; REC--reclangular enclosures;
RON--circular enclosures.

 Middle-size Stones bedding Up-right slab
 stones (BL) (DH) stones (DV) Total

Square 13 18 499 530
Oval 6 34 4 44
Rectangular 10 45 1028 1083
Circular 11 145 34 190
Total 40 242 1565 1847


CAR 32,5% 7,4% 31,9%
OVA 15,0% 14,0% 0,3%
REC 25,0% 18,6% 65,7%
RON 27,5% 59,9% 2,2%

Note: Table made from bar graph.

Figure 8. Relative numbers of tombs of the Andronovo and Karasuk
cultures: FD--walls of upright slabs; FH--walls of bedded slabs;
FI--two walls of upright and two of bedded slabs; FO--unlined graves.


FD 121 1583
FH 67 141
FI 39 7
FO 12 115
Total 239 1846
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Title Annotation:Research
Author:Legrand, Sophie
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Date:Dec 1, 2006
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