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15 May 2011

The nomadic house; history of a dwelling

RGO (Russian Geographic Society). Translated by Heda Jindrak

The nomadic house; history of a dwellingSince the very beginning of human history, the need for  spatial organization has been one of life-affirming orientations of Homo habilis (skillful man) and Homo sapiens (thinking man). Our ancestors of long ago, who lived more than 2 million years ago, were motivated by instinct of self-preservation, and were hardly thinking of comfort. These things became important to people only much later, some hundreds of thousands of years ago, and then, in search of a better deal, they pleased themselves by inhabiting the depths of caves, grottoes and cliff overhangs, coming into conflict with their previous occupants - large predators.

 

Cave camp sites of the Lower Paleolithic Age, discovered today in various corners of the world,, were the first human dwellings, where together with housekeeping activities their thinking was formed, as well as esthetic tastes and mythic-ritual complexes of the first humans. This is evidenced by  mighty cultural strata with various artifacts.  Masterpieces of  cave painting of the Upper Paleolithic era, found in the Franco-Cantabrian region (Altamira, Lascaux, Font de Gaume, and others), Ural (Kapovaya and Ignatievskaya caves with drawings),  Central Asia and other regions, are an obvious confirmation.

An inhabited cave  was perceived by people of the Stone Age as the center of the world order.  In proportion to increasingly complicated housekeeping activities and evolution of rational knowledge of natural phenomena, the ideas of cosmos as a closed, localized space, where everything was organized in correspondence with the existing harmony between the concrete social environment and the inhabited area, also formed. There is a well-known Neolithic encampment on Kazakhstan territory. It is the Karaungur cave in Susingen in South-Kazakhstan region, where archeologists discovered a large amount of stone tools.

 

When encampments of an open type first appeared in the Stone Age, that is - partially portable light-weight dwellings from available natural material - bones and skins of large mammals, it was a new step for humans in familiarization with and organization of space. Now they were free to choose the place of their habitation; they had more of a chance for realization of their potential and gaining rational knowledge of the nature-landscape complex; they built their dwellings where it was convenient and necessary for them. This was the foundation for  evolution of family and clan relationships within sometimes a single community, and basic pre-requisites  for the formation of  inhabitable structures - the future specialized stationary settlements. The first of these structures were extremely varied in form - from light conical structures, hemispherical, trapezoidal, pyramidal - up to more complicated multi-chambered structures. The most widespread type by far was one that was easily built, semi-stationary, with an opening for light and smoke, and a hearth on the floor - a shalash or choom of a conical form. Depictions of such dwellings have been found here, too - among the petroglyphs of  Akbaur grotto of the end of the 3rd - beginning of the 2nd millennia before our era, in Eastern Kazakhstan not far from Besterek village.

 

They are based on the same cosmologic symbolism: the image of the World Mountain, hearth on the floor, separation into the right and left sides, associated with binary opposites. More complicated multi-chamber dwellings with men's and women's halves, separate quarters for housekeeping activities and altar complexes represented a single cultural-social organism.

 

A dwelling as a whole was perceived as a model of the world, macro- and microcosm, where everything was arranged and organized in correspondence with ideas of a higher order, with vertical and horizontal structures, symbolic as a sacralized center with the rest of the world surrounding the periphery. Not just a concrete dwelling, but whole settlements which functioned in the final stages of the Stone Age,

were perceived as sacral center.

The settlement Botay on Iman Burluk river near Kokshetay is a brilliant example of this period; it dates from the era of transition between the Stone Age and the Paleo-metal epoch.  It has been studied for many years by professor V. F. Zaibert, who has  created the first variants of scientific reconstruction and models of the dwellings at the location of excavations. Botay as a settlement, in a way, is the  "proto-city" of the first horse-herders of the Eurasian continent, with a complicated structure. To build these dwellings, a type of semi-pit-dwellings, they used, beside wood, apparently, for tying and strengthening, also sod and horse bones.

In the Early Bronze Age, approximately 4 thousand years ago, in Ustyurt, in the area between the Aral and Caspian Seas, which would  seem to be a region remarkably unsuited to human habitation,  however an entire system of  "proto-city" fortified settlements grew there on high promontories. A network of such settlements stretches in a meridian orientation to Mugodzhar mountains and further on to north and west, and apparently reaches South Ural, where, in the Bronze Age, on the break between the 3rd and 2nd millennium people lived,, who built, for example, the world-famous Arkaim. These settlements are called by investigators "country of cities", and are associated with some early civilization which evolved in its own way. More than that, quite a few scientists think that these "proto-cities" are some five-six centuries older than Troy and are contemporaries of the first dynasty of Babylon, and the Middle Kingdom of Egypt.

 

Proto-city fortified settlements Toksabai, Aitman, Manaisor and others  north of Ustyurt and  Donyztau, which we studied over the past years, represent an even more complicated organism, with branching infrastructure, special planning, stone houses of oval form, and fortification structures. In the Toksabai settlement, the most ancient system of house heating was documented, with heat and smoke of  the "kan" type - under the floor; there were also various housekeeping structures - storehouses and also a metallurgic center, which  bear evidence for the existence of  craft  specialization and division of labor.

 

In the Bronze Age, building of dwellings obtains a truly global character, spreading practically throughout the entire area of Eurasia. On the territory of our country, the remains of settlement complexes of ancient cattle herders and metallurgists have been discovered practically all over - the carriers of so-called Andronovo culture. Those best studied are the settlements Atasu I, Myrzhyk, Ak Mustafa, and Akmaya on the upper reaches of river Atasu in Central Kazakhstan. When Alkey Khakanovich Margulan was studying Atasu I in 1955,  in the center of the settlement together with residential and working areas and a metallurgic center, a type of a temple complex was discovered, lined with huge flat stones. That means that already at that time specialized cultic structures were being built. Later, as a result of stationary investigations, through architectural and layout studies and construction   features, early types of  dwellings with rectangular chambers were defined, and a late horizon with round rooms, as well as copper-smelting complexes with a construction or without.  Investigator Zh. Kurmankulov separates at Atasu I by construction features  structures of late stages of the Bronze Age, which have a round configuration and in some cases are connected by a narrow corridor. As the author documents, the majority of small structures were built in the depressions remaining after the earlier rectangular houses.

 

In the north and east, a huge number of settlements of the Bronze Age was discovered, which are in many ways identical in layout, architectural appearance and relation of organization of objects in space and the tool complex to those in Saryarka. The best conditions for development of cattle herding were on the Upper Irtysh, and this area had the richest deposits of copper and lead. So, in Kalba-Narym metallurgic province, there was discovered a huge number of  settlement complexes of ancient ore miners and metallurgists; they supplied the neighboring areas of Eurasia with both raw material and finished products.

 

As far as settlements of Early iron Age (8th century BCE - 3rd century CE), they have been studied unevenly on Kazakhstan territory. The most interesting is a town-type settlement Ak-Tau in steppe region along the Ishim, dated to 4th-2nd century BCE. The monument is located on a high promontory on the right bank of river Ishim, and, as the author of the excavations M. Khabdulina reports, it was fortified by a defense embankment - a wall of earth and logs. Inside the fortified settlement, remains of one- and two-chambered log structures were documented. Analysis of the architecture and layout as well as the system of fortification allowed the author to postulate a narrow specialization of purpose of the Ak-Tau settlement as a fortress - shelter. It is quite possible that it was a significant military fore-post along the route of caravan trade, in an important area of communications.

 

In the last few years, in the area of Semirechie, a large number of Saka (for example Tuzusay) and Wu-sun settlements was found, whose population led a semi-nomadic existence, as shown by archeological finds. They occupied themselves, together with livestock herding, also by irrigation agriculture, and grew various grains and cereals.

 

Some ideas about mobile dwellings of ancient nomads can be learned from petroglyphs. Not far from village Alybai  of Katon-Karagai district of Eastern Kazakhstan a depiction of a tent-type dwelling shows a sharp division into right and left, or men's and women's parts. Another depiction of  a dwelling of early nomads was found in Dolanaly canyon north of village Kalzhyr of Kurchum district of Eastern Kazakhstan region.

 

It is interesting that during the Middle Ages, Turkic-language nomadic people, just like their precursors, used mobile dwellings. It is witnessed, for example, by an engraving on the cliffs in Sauyskandyk canyon, on the south slope of Karatau mountain ridge. This also shows a man and a woman inside a yurt-like dwelling, with a corresponding separation and a vertical chimney. Around the house, we see typical ancient Turkic riders, and also animals - rams and billy-goats, which, apparently, personified wealth and prosperity.

 

As far as properties in the structure of medieval towns of South Kazakhstan and Semirechie are concerned, especially along the route of the Great Silk Road, today so many scientific works have been written about them that it is senseless to recount them.

 

In medieval Arabic and Persian sources, towns of Kimaks  on the Upper Irtysh. Unfortunately, goal-oriented search for these monuments has not been carried out at this time, so they have not been elucidated.

 

During the era of the Golden Horde, contrary to the opinion about devastation of town culture resulting from conquests of significant part of Eurasia by Central Asian nomads, dozens of towns of a new type were built. This is evidenced by a whole slew of sources. In Jochi's ulus, for example,  a town Saraichik was built. Thanks to an advantageous location on a crossroads point of Eurasian communications, it became one of the most significant imperial centers, from which the Eastern provinces were administered. So-called Mongol towns, in contrast to classical medieval ones, did not have impressive systems of fortification and were close in spirit to steppe cultural complexes. But city life went on inside them: coins were minted, mosques were built, palaces fro the rulers were erected as well as administration centers and military garrisons.

 

A special type of mobile dwelling for rulers of steppe state formations is known most of all from the Mongols. These were whole houses on platforms - carts drawn by bulls. Smaller in dimension, but more mobile models of these cart-dwellings were used by the Scythians, Sakas, and during the Middle Ages - by many Turkic-language people.

 

Speaking of a mobile and stationary architecture of nomadic people, first of all the yurt is mentioned as an unsurpassable  human invention of genius. Some components of the yurt were invented already in the Bronze Age. Part was added in the Saka period. The final form of the yurt takes place during the Hunnic-Turkic period - this is precisely when the most important element of the construction appears - the shanyrak (Transl. note: heavy wood ring on top, which anchors the yurt).

 

Yurts of Turkic and Mongolian people take the outward form of a monolithic dome; they are separated into compositional elements and relate to the vertically organized tripartite structure of the world, the world tree, which connects the three spheres of  the mythological universe. It is well known that the structure of the shanyrak is seen as a model of the universe, and that the internal layout of the yurt, aside from functional aspects, has a symbolic separation between the right (women's) and left (men's) parts, and a sacral central area - opposite the entrance, where the most significant objects  were located.  The center of the dwelling is taken up by the hearth; its vitally necessary function, just like in the earliest dwellings, is identified with ritual-magic function of the sacred fire.

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