History of Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s first inhabitants appeared 1 million to 800,000 years ago when Sinanthropus and Pithecanthropus (archaic humans) settled around Lake Balkhash, the Caspian Sea, and the Karatau Mountains near the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. Due to the Pleistocene climate (aka Ice Age), these regions were cooler and received higher rainfall than today which enabled these Early Stone Age peoples to pursue a nomadic pastoralist livelihood.

Modern Homo sapiens appeared in the country 40,000 to 12,000 years ago. At the end of the Last Glacial Period (ca. 12,500 to 5,000 years ago) they journeyed beyond the territories first settled by archaic humans. The invention of bows, traps, boats and wolf domestication meant the hunter-gatherers could sustain themselves in a wider range of environments more efficiently and hunt bigger (and previously hard-to-catch) animals such as woolly rhinoceros, mammoth, wild horse, and deer.

Oil painting showing Neolithic men making stone tools and firing arrows.
An imaginative depiction of life in the Neolithic times. Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov is in the Public Domain.

Transitioning from Hunter-foragers to Agriculturalists

In the 10th millennium BCE, the Neolithic Revolution began and transitioned people’s way of life from hunting and foraging to settled agriculture and animal husbandry. The first cultures in Kazakhstan to engage in this alternative lifestyle were the Ust-Narym, Kelteminar, and Atbasar. According to A.P. Derevyanko and D. Dorj’s ‘Neolithic Tribes in Northern Parts of Central Asia’ paper, excavations at Ust-Narym unearthed “awls, eyed needles, and a needle case with a herring-bone ornament,” fishhooks made of soapstone, and “several inserts for sickles”.

There was also the Botai, who lived in north Kazakhstan around the Ishim River, and were the first to domesticate the horse in the 4th millennium BCE. It was around this time that metal production began, in the form of casting moulds and copper tools. The Sintashta culture, descendants of Europe’s Corded Ware culture, emerged in the 3rd millennium BCE in the Ural-Tobol river basin and surrounding steppe.

In the early 2nd millennium BCE, the Andronovo absorbed the Sintashta to become Kazakhstan’s first mega culture. In 1914, in the village of Andronovo, in Russia’s Krasnoyarsk region, Russian archaeologist Arkadi Tugarinov uncovered the first of several graves. In them were decorative pottery and pairs of skeletons arranged in crouched positions. A decade later, Sergei Teploukhov recognised the Andronovo as a defined culture. They’re most well known for their burial mounds, also known as kurgans, which are constructed atop stone or timber chambers. Aside from the deceased, the ossuaries also contained livestock, ceramics, weapons, chariots, and horse-related paraphernalia.

Map of the Corded Ware and Sintashta Culture in Eurasia.
Map by Joshua Jonathan is licensed with CC BY-SA 4.0.
Aerial view of the remains of a Sintashta Culture settlement on the left bank of the Bolshaya Karaganka River in Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia. Photo by Rafikova M is licensed with CC BY-SA 4.0.
Map of the Sintashta Culture in western Kazakhstan and southern Russia.
Map showing the Sintashta Culture (violet), surrounded by the Andronovo Culture (red). Map by Dbachmann is licensed with CC BY-SA 3.0.
Map of the Andronovo culture's distribution in Kazakhstan.
Map showing the Andronovo Culture at its height after absorbing the Sintashta. Map by Dbachmann is licensed with CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Emergence of Tribal Confederations

In the Late Bronze Age (ca. late 2nd to early 1st millennium BCE), an abrupt change in climate affected much of Eurasia. For Kazakhstan, this caused the steppes and oasis river valley areas to become more arid, and led large groups to migrate to forested areas in the north. Inhabitants remained there for a few centuries until the arid period was over and then returned to resettle the abandoned zones. The Eastern Iranian peoples were one of the largest groups to repopulate the area in the early 1st millennium BCE. Over half a millennium they branched off into many sub-groups, such as the Saka and Scythian nomadic warrior cultures, and the Khwarazmians (aka Chorasmians) who had control of the entire Amu Darya river delta on the Aral Sea’s southern shore.

From the mid-2nd century BCE, the Eastern Iranian sub-groups underwent a significant ethnographic shift when the Indo-European Yuezhi crept westward into Kyrgyzstan and south-east Kazakhstan. This led to some Scythian settlements migrating south to India. Following in the Yuezhi’s tracks were the Indo-European Wusun who booted out the Yuezhi just thirty years later, driving them toward Bactria and Sogdia in the south.

In the mid-1st century BCE a formidable force appeared in Kazakhstan: the Xiongnu, a confederation of tribal nomadic peoples. They entered the country’s eastern borders with Russia, Mongolia and China. Scholars debate whether the Xiongnu are Turkic, Mongolian, Iranian, or Hunnic. Although, the given the complex nature of Eurasia, it’s probably safe to assume the Xiongnu were a mixture of multiple ethno-linguistic groups. Along with the Xiongnu’s arrival was the Indo-European Sogdian kingdom of Kangju in the southern part of Khwarazm (Chorasmia).

Kazakhstan’s social landscape remained fairly static for the next five hundred years. The Scythians held on to their vast expanse across western and central Kazakhstan, and Kangju and Khwarezm held their ground. The only notable change was the Mongolian Xianbei obliterating the Xiongnu’s Kazakh presence in the late 1st century CE. Yueban, a small rump state on the west side of Lake Balkhash, was all that remained of the Xiongnu. Yueban is a colloquial term used by Chinese historians, meaning ‘Weak Xiongnu’. The state lasted for over three centuries until the Turkic Tiele attacked and took them over in the late 480s CE, the Hunnic Hephthalites in 495-496 CE and the proto-Mongolian Rouran in the 530s CE.

Kazakhstan’s Indo-European presence was on the decline at the start of the 5th century CE. All that remained were the Kangju, Khwarazmians, and the Scythians whose territory had now shrunk to a small corner of Mangystau in western Kazakhstan. On the Caspian Sea’s north coast, the Hunnic Empire was already busy setting itself up and preparing for its rampage into Europe and the Roman Empire. Many believe the disgruntled ancestors of the Xiongnu founded the empire, which could explain why they blitzed out west and avoided Central Asia.

Engraving of the Huns and Alans fighting on horseback.
Depiction of the Huns battling the Alans. Engraving by Peter Johann Nepomuk Geiger (1805–1880) is in the Public Domain.

The Turkic Khaganates

In the mid-6th century CE, the Göktürks established the First Turkic Khaganate. With their leader, Bumin Qaghan, a former chieftain of the Rouran Khaganate, they pushed out any remaining Hun presence to the south and west. Despite the Göktürk’s control lasting only fifty years, they managed to turn their stake into Central Asia’s first transcontinental empire. At its height, their territory stretched from the Black Sea to north-eastern China. In 603 a civil war divided the empire into two halves, with the Western Turkic Khaganate covering Kazakhstan and ruled over by the Onoğur tribe, and the Göktürk’s running the Eastern version.

The Western Turkic Khaganate lasted half a century until the Emperor Taizong of Chinese Tang dynasty dismantled it with a succession of military campaigns lasting nearly two decades. What emerged were two Tang vassal states lasting from the mid-7th to mid-8th centuries: the Kangar Union which covered most country, and the Karluk Yabghu State encompassing south-east Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. During this time, the Umayyad Caliphate also brought Islam to the country for the first time via the southern regions of Kyzylorda, Turkistan, and Zhambyl.

In 750, the Kangar Union collapsed. The Oghuz Yabgu State took its place, founded by Oghuz Turks who were refugees from the Turgesh Khaganate in Kyrgyzstan. It covered most of west and central Kazakhstan. The Kipchaks took over the remaining Kangar section, north of Lake Balkhash.

From 840 to 880, three new states formed; the Kimek-Kipchak Confederation, which united seven tribes and oversaw north and central Kazakhstan; the Karluk Yabghu State converted to the Kara-Khanid Khanate; and the Turkic Khazar Khaganate, which covered a sweep of land from the western Aral Sea to the northern Caucasus.

All that remained for the Oghuz was a patch of steppe around the Aral Sea and the south-west. By 1000, Cumania’s presence around the north Caspian coast and Kara-Khanid’s westward expansion reduced them to Mangystau.

The Rise of the Mongols

Central Asia’s most infamous chapter began in the early 13th century with the rise of Genghis Khan and his forbidding Mongol Empire. Beginning in 1206, Genghis and his four successive khans –Ögedei, Güyük, Möngke, and Kublai– created the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen. The Empire collapsed after Kublai Khan died in 1294 from gout and obesity-related health problems. This resulted in it fragmenting into four separate khanates, with the Golden Horde covering most Kazakhstan and the Chagatai Khanate in the south. Of the four khanates, all of them embraced Islam, apart from the Yuan dynasty. The Golden Horde continue to spread Islam and proved to take root most successfully in the more settled and agrarian communities that dominated the south. Elsewhere in the country, nomadic livestock breeding remained the primary source of income for the local population.

The Horde steadily declined in power after Timur, a Turco-Mongol, invaded it and caused it to break up into Mongol-Tatar khanates. By the late 15th century, all that remained of the Golden Horde in Kazakhstan was the Great Horde which was situated around the Caspian’s northwest coast, the northern Caucasus and Volga river basin. The Uzbek Khanate ruled over the rest of the country.

The Dawn of Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan, as we recognise it today–in terms of its identity and territorial boundaries–began when Janibek and Kerei, who were sons of Golden Horde ruler Barak Khan, fled the Uzbek Khanate in 1459. Six years later they founded the Kazakh Khanate in the Syr Darya area, and another three years later Janibek launched an attack on the Uzbek-owned lands, starting the Kazakh War of Independence. The conflict lasted until 1500, when the Uzbeks agreed to cede all territory north of the Syr Darya back to the Kazakhs.

Over a quarter century, the Kazakhs enlarged their khanate to cover most of the country. The Mangystau Region proved difficult for them to conquer because of the Nogai Horde, which was a confederation of Mongol-Turkic tribes. A brief civil war between Janibek’s grandsons in the early 1530s briefly halted the khanate’s expansion, causing it to fracture into smaller warring states. It stopped when Haqnazar Khan stepped in and quashed the feud later in the decade. It was in his interests to do so because opponents surrounded the Kazakh Khanate in all directions: the Khanate of Sibir in the north, Moghulistan in the east, the Khanate of Bukhara in the south, and the Nogai in the west.

The Power Struggle with Tsarist Russia

Now unified under Islam, the Khanate continued to expand and hold reign over most of the country until the early 19th century. Although, it wasn’t without a struggle. The 17th century proved trying as they attempted to fend off the Cossacks, which the Tsardom of Russia hired to expand eastward into Eurasia’s frontier, and the Oirat’s Dzungar Khanate, which was expanding westwards from Xinjiang. The Kazakh-Dzungar conflict lasted for more than a century and threatened the stability of the Kazakh Khanate. When the Qing dynasty swooped in and massacred 500,000 to 800,000 Dzungars, roughly 80% of their population, the threat ended.

Black and white painting of Cossacks wildly dancing in a field.
Cossacks dancing. Reproduction by Jedrzej1224 of Stanislaw Maslowski's (1853-1926) painting is in the Public Domain.

In 1718, the khanate split into three jüz–meaning “horde” in Kazakh–after it lost a third of its population in the Dzungar conflict, along with the death of its leader, Tauke Khan. The Junior, Middle, and Senior Jüz now each had their own khan. Throughout the century, the Junior and Middle Jüz fell under the influence of the Russian Empire. The Senior Jüz then followed in the early 19th century after they figured it was better to be under Russian protection, instead of the Kokand Khanate, which was approaching from the south.

In 1882 the Empire established the Governor-Generalship of the Steppe and covered most of the country’s central and northern belt between the Caspian and Lake Zaysan. The establishment of this administrative district, along with the increasing number of Russian settlers and fortifications, made it increasingly difficult for traditional nomadism to continue in the country. Nomadism was largely wiped out in 1906 after Petr Stolypin, Russia’s Minister of the Interior, implemented the construction of nearly half-a-million farms. By 1917 these mega-sized ranches covered almost a fifth of land and were staffed by 1.5 million Russian-Ukrainian peasant settlers, instead of the Kazakhs. There was armed resistance against the newcomers, which was motivated in part by the pan-Central Asian Basmachi movement. The movement sought to oppose colonialism and the conscription of local Muslims to fight in World War I. In the end, the conflict led to thousands of deaths and Kazakhs leaving to Mongolia and China.

Female collective farmers holding rakes and walking through a field smiling.
Workers at the Klishevo collective farm near Moscow. Photographer unknown and work is in the public domain (via the Library of Congress).

The Soviet Union

In December 1917, the White Army-aligned Alash Autonomy (or Alash Orda) set up the first independent state since the Kazakh Khanate. It surrendered to the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1920 who then changed its name to the Kirghiz Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic, even though it only encompassed Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The name changed to the Kazakh Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic in 1925 and then the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic in 1936, which lasted until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Characterising this period was additional Russian migration in the 1950–60s as part of the Virgin Lands Campaign to address food shortages, 400-plus nuclear tests over 40 years in Semipalatinsk, and the shrinking of the Aral Sea due to diversions for agricultural irrigation.

Present Day

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Republic of Kazakhstan emerged. Its population today is over 18 million, and its considerable oil and natural gas resources have enabled it to become Central Asia’s most economically prosperous nation.

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