We are in Central-Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where the climate is characterized by hot and dry summers and cold rainy winters. The characteristic of these areas are the steppes, formed by extensive grasslands, few trees and a prevalently grassy vegetation. Among the fauna it is possible to find herbivorous animals, marmots, hamsters, foxes, wolves, weasels, amphibians and insects.
The word “steppe” means an environment consisting of wide temperate prairies, generally with hot dry summers and cold rainy winters. The steppes of the northern hemisphere are located within continents, between 30° and 50° latitude. In the southern hemisphere, this biome is less frequent and can be mostly found in South America. The climate of the steppe is fairly dry, with hot summers and freezing winters. As to its climate in Asia, eastern steppes are very different from western ones. In the east, rains do not exceed 60 mm a year, while western steppes can receive up to 400. As to temperatures, the average temperature of eastern Asian steppes is 25°C in summer and –15°C in winter, while in the west the average never exceeds 20°C in summer and 0°C in winter. The lack of trees is due not only to the climate, but also to the large herbivores’ intense grazing and sometimes to man’s deforestation.
The steppe in the world
Temperate prairies are widespread in all continents. They are generally known as steppe but have other names as well, depending on the language of the geographical area where they are. European prairies (puszta) extend from Hungary to southern Russia and from there to Mongolia (steppe). In south America, the steppe is in Peru and Bolivia (puna) and Argentina (pampas). In South-Africa and Australia, the steppe is called veldt, while the great expenses of grass of north America are simply called prairies.
Plants of the steppe
The steppe is a biome with herbaceous vegetation. The western steppes, which are more humid, are extremely rich in species. In the wet areas formed by melted snow, small trees and shrubs grow, especially poplars and aspens, which sometimes cluster into small woods. Conversely, in eastern steppes the vegetation is poorer and without trees. Everywhere the vegetation mainly consists of graminaceous plants, herbs that sometimes can be 2 metres tall as in the great Chinese “grass sea”. Some species of pulse vegetables and composites also grow here.
Animals of the steppe
The wide prairies of the steppe are the kingdom of large herbivores which often migrate far away in search of new pastures. Because of the lack of hiding places and the need to migrate, many herbivores of the steppe have grown to a huge size, have exceptionally adjusted to running and have very sharp senses. The typical herbivores of the steppe are: the European and North-American bison, the horse, native to Asian steppes, the pronghorn that lives in North-American prairies, and the guanaco, relative to camels and living in the Argentine steppes. Along with the guanaco, the pampas deer, a small cervid of the same size as a roe deer, also lives in south American pampas.
Small mammals of the steppe
Amongst large herbivores live many species of small mammals that dig deep underground tunnels to escape predators. In south America, there are different species of rodents: the guinea pig, now used as a pet, the viscacha and the tuco-tuco, that looks like a big hamster. As they dig the soil, these rodents keep raking up the layers of earth, thus helping to ventilate the land and reduce the surface concentration of mineral salts. In north American steppes live prairie dogs, rodents organised into complex communities and living in veritable cities dug in the ground. Prairie dogs have a very complex social life and communicate through a well-developed language made of gestures and calls.
Animals of the Australian steppe
In Australia, the steppe covers nearly one half of the backcountry. The typical inhabitant of the Australian steppe is the kangaroo, but there are also many other species of marsupials, such as the Virginia opossum and the wombat, that looks like a small bear. Many Australian birds are no longer accustomed to flying: the emu and the cassowary are big, and, like African ostriches, are very good at running. The kiwi is a small nocturnal bird that cannot fly; it feeds on the invertebrates it can find on the ground with its smell and hearing.
Richness of the steppe
The steppe is a landscape dominated by large areas where man has left few traces of himself. Nevertheless, the steppe offers sights of rare beauty to those who venture amidst its boundless lands. But the steppe is not only interesting for the beauty of its landscape: it is rich in underground minerals and hydrocarbon fields. The flora of the steppe offers some medicinal plants, such as the eleutherococcus (Eleutherococcus senticosus), also known as Siberian ginseng.
Ancient and legendary dynasties have given origin to the peoples who now live in Russia, Mongolia, China, etc. Only a few ethnic groups remain in the steppe regions where they still follow their old lifestyles. The Yis live in south-western China, in the Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces and are now approximately 6.5 millions. Their lands do not allow them to settle permanently: the Yis are nomads who set up their own wandering villages, especially around the oases or lakes the region is dotted with. The focus of tribe’s life is the tent. Called yurt, it is shaped like a round dome. Its straight walls are made of branch frames kept together by leather straps. Since they are nomads, the whole yurt can be dismounted and taken away. When dismounted (it takes about two hours), the yurt may be loaded onto three camels or four horses. When in a new camp, the yurt may be mounted in three hours by two people. It is strong and can withstand strong winds and even a tiger on the roof. The yurt is not the only important thing in nomadic life. The horsemen of the steppes are shepherds and hunters, and horses are of crucial importance, not only for riding. Horse milk, in the form of curds, powder, fermented or plain, is important fare, along with horsemeat. In addition, horse hides are used to make leather boots, bags, bowls, packs; they are used in war and are the measure of part of a man’s wealth. Horses are not the only animals reared by tribes. Sheep, cows and oxen are also common all over the steppe. Camels are mainly used near the driest regions. The life of each Yi tribe hinges around the chieftain, named khahan. In general, he wields influence only within his own tribe, but, under exceptional circumstances, he may bring many tribes together by conquest and diplomacy. Other tribes may spontaneously join under his rule, either out of friendship or fear, into a powerful nation of warriors and horsemen.
Eurasian steppes and north American prairies were inhabited by fascinating and legendary people and were the scene of important historical events. In the 8th century b.C., a group of Indo-Iranian nomadic tribes got into eastern Europe and settled between the mountain range of the Carpathians and the river Dnepr. Herodotus, the historian, described them as skilful horsemen, fierce warriors and rich shepherds. The Greeks called them Scythians, and Scythia was the region between the Danube and the Don that these tribes militarily controlled.
The Mongols of Genghis Khan
In the early 12thcentury, many Turkish-Mongolian nomadic tribes, similar in language, culture and lifestyle, used to live in the steppe plateau of Central Asia. These groups had gathered into small tribes, mostly composed of one family, armed and determined to defend their pastures and cattle. The tribes were headed by the most powerful clans, who decided when and where to pitch camp or pasture their cattle and who to fight. The weakest families still had authority and kept possession of their animals, but had to pay a tribute to the ruling clan.
The ferocious Hunnish
The Huns were nomadic people of Turkish-Mongolian origins. Legends portray these people as fierce horsemen grouped into huge armies and armed with horn bows, bone arrows, snares and nets. In fact, the Huns seem to have been composed of a myriad small gangs, which were as ready to join forces as to fight each other. Once again, as the legend goes, the Huns spent their lives on horseback and used to wear the hides of wild animals until rotten. The most famous Hunnish warrior is certainly Attila, who was elected king of the Huns in 443 and who, for his legendary ferocity, was named “the scourge of God”.
The Europeans gave the name of “Indians” to native Americans because in discovering the Americas Christopher Columbus thought he had reached the Far East, then called the “East Indies”. When the first Europeans arrived, Indians were perhaps more than 5 millions, gathered in a high number of tribes. Many of them were nomadic hunters, although they also grew crops, especially maize. Bison were the favourite preys of many Indian tribes. Between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains lived the Comanche, the Arapaho, the Cheyenne, the Blackfoot and the Sioux, who were bison hunters. East, along the Great Lakes, lived the Algonquin and the Huron, good at fishing and hunting.
Mines, Industry and crafts
As well as the extraction of hydrocarbons, the steppe contains many other underground bodies: copper, molybdenum, phosphor, gold (4,632 kg in Mongolia alone) as well as limestone and dolomite. In addition, these lands are rich in underground fields of bismuth, cadmium and thallium, which are essential for electronics. Mines have always been the main means of support for many people, who have built their settlements right against the extraction areas. Industry is still in its infancy and is almost essentially based on wool, leather (leather clothes and shoes), cashmere, meat and dairy products.
The agricultural exploitation of these areas has caused a series of inter-linked consequences: the animal and vegetal species of the steppe community are increasingly threatened. Hole diggers, such as moles, damage the crops; larger grazing animals compete with native species, and predators, such as wolves, threaten the survival of cattle. To defend human activities, plans for the extermination of “harmful” species, especially hole diggers, were put forward, but it was soon acknowledged that without the latter the structure of the soil would start deteriorating.