One of the primary testimonies we know that steppe nomads had learned how to fight well from horseback was a great raid into Asia Minor launched from the Ukraine about 690 BCE by a people whom the Greeks called Cimmerians. Some, though perhaps not all, of the raiders were mounted.
The Central-Asian steppe has been the home of nomad tribes for centuries. Being nomads, they roamed across the plains, incidentally attacking the urbanized countries to the south, east and west. Not long thereafter, tribes speaking an Iranian language, which the Greeks called Scythians, conquered the Cimmerians and in turn became lords of the Ukraine.
According to the Greek researcher and historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BCE and who is the principal source of information on these events and being the first to describe the life style of these tribes, stresses that the Scyths (or at least some of them) claimed to have migrated from the Altai Mountains at the eastern extreme of the Western Steppe.
Though, he concentrates on the tribes living in modern Ukraine, which he calls Scythians, we may extrapolate his description to people in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and possibly Mongolia, even though Herodotus usually calls these eastern nomads ‘Sacae’.
In fact, just as the Scythians and the Sacae shared the same life style, they had the same name: in their own language, which belonged to the Indo-Iranian family, they called themselves Skudat. The Persians rendered this name as Sakâ and the Greeks as Skythai. The Chinese called them, at a later stage in history, Sai.
This may well be so, and some modern scholars have even surmised that the barbarian invasions of China that brought the Western Chou dynasty to an end in 771 BC may have been connected with a Scythian raid from the Altai that had occurred a generation or two before Scythian migration westward to the Ukraine.
The Eastern Steppe was, however, too barren and cold for invaders to linger. Consequently, the spread of cavalry skills and of the horse nomads’ way of life to Mongolia took several centuries. We know this from Chinese records clearly showing that cavalry raids from the Mongolian steppe became chronic only in the 4th century BCE. China was then divided among warring states, and border principalities had to convert to cavalry tactics in order to mount successful defenses. The first state to do so developed its cavalry force only after 325 BCE.
Long before then, however, the Scythians had erected a loose confederacy that spanned all of the Western Steppe. The high king of the tribe heading this confederacy presumably had only limited control over the far reaches of the Western Steppe. But on special occasions the Scythians could assemble large numbers of horsemen for long-distance raids, such as the one that helped to bring the Assyrian Empire to an end.
After sacking the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 612 BCE, the booty-laden Scyths returned to the Ukrainian steppe, leaving Medes, Babylonians, and Egyptians to dispute the Assyrian heritage. But the threat of renewed raids from the north remained and constituted a standing problem for rulers of the Middle East thencefore.
The height of the Scythian empire, most scholars agree, was at the 4th century, BCE. However, during the 3rd century BCE, fewer traces of these nomadic people were left. No one knows exactly what happened to them, but there is some evidence to support that they were defeated eventually by the Greeks—the Scythians had begun to raid and pillage Greek villages, though the reason behind this is still unknown.
By the way, the newest find is from the remote Altai mountains of Siberia—specifically, from the archeological dig at Ukok, near where the borders of Russia, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan meet. Russian scientists found the 2,000-year-old mummified remains of a Scythian queen elegantly laid out in white silk alongside horse harnesses, a mirror, dishes and a small ceremonial container of cannabis. They believed that Scythian pot “was smoked for pleasure and used in pagan rituals…”
Cannabis was not only used by the Scythians for relaxation and ceremonies for the dead. These ancient nomads had a class of shaman-magicians called the Enaries. These were ancient transvestites who uttered prophecies in high pitched voices. This at first sounds bizarre, but was actually a very common trait among shamans world wide. The Scythians believed that these people, who had characteristics of both sexes, were somehow also living in both worlds, and could travel between the two. What a believe!