Bronze statuette of a man, Ordos, 3-1st century BCE. British Museum.
The Ordos culture (simplified Chinese: 鄂尔多斯文化; traditional Chinese: 鄂爾多斯文化) was a material culture occupying a region centered on the Ordos Loop (corresponding to the region of Suiyuan, including Baotou to the north, all located in modern Inner Mongolia, China) during the Bronze and early Iron Age from the 6th to 2nd centuries BCE. The Ordos culture is known for significant finds of Scythian art and may represent the easternmost extension of Indo-European Eurasian nomads, such as the Saka, or may be linkable to Palaeo-Siberians or Yeniseians. Under the Qin and Han dynasties, the area came under the control of contemporaneous Chinese states.
The Ordos Plateau was covered by grass, bushes, and trees and was sufficiently watered by numerous rivers and streams to produce rich grazing lands. At the time, it contained the best pasture lands on the Asian Steppe.
Equestrian nomads from the north-west occupied the area previously settled by the Zhukaigou culture from the 6th to the 2nd century BCE before being driven away by the Xiongnu. Some authors date the arrival from the north and west of these nomads practicing mounted warfare to the 4th century BC, corresponding roughly to the period of the conquests of Alexander the Great in Central Asia. They came in several waves from Central Asia and Southern Siberia through the Gansu corridor before settling in the Ordos region. They may have interacted with the Yuezhi (whose name also has the "thoroughly wrong" modern reading Rouzhi) in the process.
This also roughly corresponds to the period when mounted warfare was introduced in the Chinese state of Zhao, during the Warring States period, by groups called by the Chinese Hu (胡, "Barbarians") or Donghu (東胡 "Eastern Barbarians") and the Linhu (林胡 "Forest Barbarians"), who stimulated the interest of the Zhao king with their "archery from horseback" (騎射 qíshé). Sometimes, Chinese sources clearly differentiated the Hu and the Xiongnu, who consolidated their eastern empire by the end of the 3rd century BC. yet on other occasions Chinese sources often just classified the Xiongnu as a Hu people, which was a blanket term for nomadic people.
The Ordos are mainly known from their skeletal remains and artifacts. The Ordos culture of about 500 BCE to 100 CE is known for its "Ordos bronzes", blade weapons, finials for tent-poles, horse gear, and small plaques and fittings for clothes and horse harness, using animal style decoration with relationships both with the Scythian art of regions much further west, and also Chinese art. Its relationship with the Xiongnu is controversial; for some scholars they are the same and for others different. Many buried metal artefacts have emerged on the surface of the land as a result of the progressive desertification of the region.
The Ordos are thought to be the easternmost of the Iranian peoples of the Eurasian Steppe, just to the east of the better-known Yuezhi, also an Indo-European-speaking people. Because the people represented in archaeological finds tend to display Europoid features, also earlier noted by Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen, Iaroslav Lebedynsky suggests the Ordos culture had "a Scythian affinity". Other scholars have associated it with the Yuezhi or the Palaeo-Siberians (specifically, Yeniseians). The weapons found in tombs throughout the steppes of the Ordos are very close to those of the Scythians and Saka.
Recent archeological and genetic data suggests that the Western and Eastern Scythians of the 1st millennium BC originated independently, but both combine Yamnaya-related ancestry, which spread eastwards from the area of the European steppes, with an East Asian-related component, which most closely corresponds to the modern North Siberian Nganasan people of the lower Yenisey River, to varying degrees, but generally higher among Eastern Scythians.
On the other hand, archaeological evidence now tends to suggest that the origins of Scythian culture, characterized by its kurgans burial mounds and its Animal style of the 1st millennium BC, are to be found among Eastern Scythians rather than their Western counterparts: eastern kurgans are older than western ones (such as the Altaic kurgan Arzhan 1 in Tuva), and elements of the Animal style are first attested in areas of the Yenisei river and modern-day China in the 10th century BC. The rapid spread of Scythian culture, from the Eastern Scythians to the Western Scythians, is also confirmed by significant east-to-west gene flow across the steppes during the 1st millennium BC.
Several Ordos artifacts from the 6-5th century BC reflect a nomadic culture based on the chariot rather than the mounted horse. These include chariot ornaments for chariot yokes, which have been excavated in nomadic tombs.
The material used was bronze, in contrast to the silver and gold which appeared from the 4th century BC, together with the mounted-horse culture. Chariot ornaments disappeared from graves around that time. The artifacts were probably created in the foundries of the pre-Dynastic State of Qin for the nomadic herders of the Ordos.
Around the 4th century BC, grave goods starting to change markedly. The chariot, which had been a central funerary artifact among nomadic people, was replaced by the horse. The iconography of grave artifacts became clearly derived from Altaic or eastern Central Asian motifs. The new iconography of this period, combined with the fact that it first appears in southern Ningxia and southeastern Gansu to the west of the Ordos, suggests that these horse-mounted nomads came from Central Asia and southern Siberia through Gansu, probably in several waves.
Gold and silver replaced tinned bronze. A Gold stag with eagle's head found at the southern edge of the Ordos desert exemplifies the new "intrusive style" introduced by the Ordos nomads. The motif of the "raptor-headed creature" is earlier documented from the Pazyryk culture, and is part of a Eurasian symbolic system known from around the 7th century BC and identified in Saka burial sites. A nomadic gold crown was also excavated in the Ordos, and dated to the 3rd century BC. New techniques such as granulation were also introduced from the west across Eurasia and would then be adopted by China.
These artifacts, such as those depicting raptor-headed mythological creatures, are often attributed to the Xiongnu, but this is an impossibility since the Xiongnu were not yet in the region in the 4th century BCE and could not have imported these designs to northwestern China, and furthermore these styles actually disappeared soon after the arrival of the Xiongnu. They should instead be attributed to the pre-Xiongnu nomads would occupied the Ordos at that time, including possibly the Yuezhi.
While the ethnolinguistic origins and character of the Ordos culture are unknown, the population appears to have been significantly influenced by Indo-European cultures. However, the art of the Ordos culture appears to have similarities to that of the Donghu people (Chinese: 東胡), a Mongolic-speaking nomadic tribe located to the east, suggesting that the two had close ties.
The Ordos population was also in contact – and reportedly often at war – with the pre-Han and Han peoples. The Ordos culture covered, geographically, regions later occupied by the Han, including areas just north of the later Great Wall of China and straddling the northernmost hook of the Yellow River.
To the west of the Ordos culture was another Indo-European people, the Yuezhi, although nothing is known of relations between the two. (The Yuezhi were later vanquished by the Xiongnu and Wusun, who reportedly drove them westward, out of China; a subgroup of the Yuezhi is widely believed to have migrated to South Central Asia, where it constituted the ruling elite of the Kushan Empire.)
The Xiongnu's early appearance was recorded north of Wild Goose Gate and Dai commanderies before 265 BCE, just before the Zhao-Xiongnu War; however, sinologist Edwin Pulleyblank (1994) contends that pre-241-BCE references to the Xiongnu are anachronistic substitutions for the Hu people instead. They are also mentioned in Chinese sources, official ones like Records of the Grand Historian, and unofficial ones like Yi Zhou Shu and Classic of Mountains and Seas as having occupied the Ordos plateau during the Warring States period before it was occupied by the states of Qin and Zhao. It is generally thought to be their homeland; however, when exactly they came to occupy the region is unclear and archaeological finds suggest it might have been much earlier than traditionally thought. The Xiongnu regained their homeland up to China's borders, more than ten years after their expulsion, during the post-Qin chaos when Meng Tian had died and convicts stationed to guard the borders returned home.
As the Xiongnu expanded southward into Yuezhi territory around 160 BCE under Modun, the Yuezhi in turn defeated the Sakas and pushed them away at Issyk Kul. It is thought the Xiongnu also occupied the Ordos area during the same period, when they came in direct contact with the Chinese. From there, the Xiongnu conducted numerous devastating raids into Chinese territory (167, 158, 142, 129 BCE).
The Han–Xiongnu War began with Emperor Gaozu of Han, and the Han colonized the area of the Ordos as the commandery of Shuofang in 127 BCE. Prior to this campaign, there were already earlier commanderies established by Qin and Zhao before they were overrun by the Xiongnu in 209 BCE.
Belt plaques in the shape of a kneeling horse in gilded silver, were made in North China for Xiongnu patrons in 3rd-1st century BCE. Belt buckles with animal combat scenes were made in the 2nd-1st century BCE, mainly by North China workshops for the Xiongnu. These plates were inspired by the art of the steppes, but the design was flattened and compressed within the frame.
"Genomic inference reveals that Scythians in the east and the west of the steppe zone can best be described as a mixture of Yamnaya-related ancestry and an East Asian component. Demographic modelling suggests independent origins for eastern and western groups with ongoing gene-flow between them, plausibly explaining the striking uniformity of their material culture. We also find evidence that significant gene-flow from east to west Eurasia must have occurred early during the Iron Age." and "The blend of EHG [European hunter-gatherer] and Caucasian elements in carriers of the Yamnaya culture was formed on the European steppe and exported into Central Asia and Siberia". We therefore considered an alternative model in which we treat them as a mix of Yamnaya and the Han (Supplementary Table 25). This model fits all of the Iron Age Scythian groups, consistent with these groups having ancestry related to East Asians not found in the other populations. Alternatively, the Iron Age Scythian groups can also be modelled as a mix of Yamnaya and the north Siberian Nganasan (Supplementary Note 2, Supplementary Table 26).
The origin of the widespread Scythian culture has long been debated in Eurasian archaeology. The northern Black Sea steppe was originally considered the homeland and centre of the Scythians until Terenozhkin formulated the hypothesis of a Central Asian origin. On the other hand, evidence supporting an east Eurasian origin includes the kurgan Arzhan 1 in Tuva, which is considered the earliest Scythian kurgan. Dating of additional burial sites situated in east and west Eurasia confirmed eastern kurgans as older than their western counterparts. Additionally, elements of the characteristic ‘Animal Style' dated to the tenth century BCE were found in the region of the Yenisei river and modern-day China, supporting the early presence of Scythian culture in the East.