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  • Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change: The Mongols and Their Eurasian Predecessors ed. by Reuven Amitai and Michal Biran
  • Scott C. Levi
Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change: The Mongols and Their Eurasian Predecessors. Edited by reuven amitai and michal biran. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015. 345 pp. $54.00 (cloth).

The twelve stimulating essays that comprise this volume were originally presented at a 2006 conference on Eurasian nomads hosted by the Institute of Advanced Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Practitioners of Inner Asian history have long argued that the nomadic peoples who occupied the vast Eurasian steppe were much more than timeless barbarians whose only contributions to world history were breeding animals and toppling the occasional sedentary state. These essays draw attention to many of the ways that nomads contributed to cultural history by mediating Eurasian cultural exchanges from antiquity through the Mongol era.

One of several themes that run through the volume is that Inner Asian nomads eagerly appropriated knowledge from their sedentary neighbors, and from one another. As Biran notes in her introduction, “Such appropriation is often described as ‘barbarian’ assimilation into more elaborated sedentary culture or as proof of the nonautarkic character of nomadic culture” (p. 5). Such a notion assumes a simplistic, often backward, cultural purity among nomadic peoples. Instead, readers will find that nomadic peoples welcomed the deliberate and selective incorporation of new ideas and practices from sedentary societies, viewing it as socially useful and indicative of good governance. This was more [End Page 133] commonly the case when nomads ruled over sedentary peoples, but even when they did not, nomadic societies were far from isolated and anything but simple, pure, and unchanging.

The volume is organized in a generally chronological manner. Beginning with a brief introductory chapter by Biran, the contributions can be divided into three parts. Chapters 2 through 5 deal with Eurasian nomads in antiquity; chapters 6 through 9 focus on the era of the Mongol Empire; and the final three chapters address various aspects of the Mongol legacy.

In chapter 2, Gideon Shelach-Lavi presents an analysis of recent archeological studies to illuminate the interactions between settled peoples and the earliest (semi-) nomadic peoples on what would become the frontiers of China during the second millennium b.c.e. Shelach-Lavi aims to show how early pastoralists mediated trans-Eurasian interactions, which, in some key ways, shaped the development of ancient China. Next, the eminent anthropologist Anatoly Khazanov directs attention to the emergence of the “Scythian” nomadic polity at the beginning of the first millennium b.c.e. Khazanov shows how the Scythians adopted influences from Greeks and others, and then transmitted these influences widely as they gave rise to the pastoral-nomadic political culture that spread across the Eurasian landmass.

In chapter 4, William Honeychurch focuses on the concept of the Silk Road and the role that nomads played in trans-Eurasian exchange networks. Building upon David Christian’s work on “steppe roads,” Honeychurch aims to illustrate how recent archeological discoveries pertaining to the Xiongnu during the third to first centuries b.c.e. elucidate ways in which nomadic political economies at the time facilitated the later rise of the fabled Silk Road trade network.5 Isenbike Togan follows this with an incisive analysis of Chinese sociopolitical terminology of nomadic peoples in the eastern steppe between the fifth and eighth centuries. Her study of the term buluo, or “tribe segments,” adds an important element to discussions of the roles that both kinship and nonkinship groups played among the early Türk people and how such concepts developed in Chinese historical terminologies.

The remaining chapters all deal with the Mongols, the most well documented of all Inner Asian nomadic powers, and their legacy. In chapter 6, Thomas Allsen provides an excellent overview of the monumental shuffling of peoples from one part of Mongol Eurasia to another. Allsen’s discussion focuses on three features: soldiers who were part [End Page 134] of the invading Mongol forces; refugees who fled or were otherwise displaced during the Mongol onslaught; and the peoples the Mongols relocated after the conquests were over, in an effort to rehabilitate depopulated parts of...


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