I'm creating an antiquity-age earthlike world starting at the early bronze age. One of my continental interiors is a large, fairly flat, hot steppe region predominantly covered in steppe woodland, situated between 15 and 30 degrees latitude. With my research, I've come to the idea of this being like a warmer version of the Ukrainian forest steppe, though I may be wrong. Through this grassland region is a large navigable river system, annually flooded by glacial melt in neighboring mountains, carving a river valley into the land. In my head, this seems like a great place for a river valley civilization, but I know that large grassland expanses are more suited to nomadic pastoralists. The river flows south, leaving this region and entering a deciduous forest, then the equatorial lowland jungle before reaching the ocean. Map for reference, color coded for biomes

Is a region like this suitable for a river valley civilization? If not, what aspects make in unsuitable, and if so, what challenges might this civilization face?

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    $\begingroup$ "Woodland" and "steppe" are two completely different biomes, with vastly different rainfall requirements. The "Forest Steppe" isn't a single biome it's a mixed ecosystem with distinct spatial variations. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Commented Jun 14 at 8:59
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    $\begingroup$ Xeric Shurb sounds like a starwars character. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 14 at 13:18
  • $\begingroup$ Keep in mind the relative elevation of the plains and the height of the exit point of the river. Is the exit point much lower, then the river will carve deep canyons hindering transportation of food. And the isolated shelves of land in between might dry out. Is the exit point at almost equal level, it will create a meandering river that overflows annually, creating fertile lands. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 19 at 15:53

2 Answers 2


Bronze Age Herders and Farmers

Prior to ~3,500 BC, the European steppe was basically empty. The areas immediately around the Don, Danube, Volga, etc all had hunter-gatherer populations, but the land in between was too barren to support human settlement. Recent research suggests that the people along the northern Dnipro where genetically distinct from the people along the northern Volga because the land in between was too inhospitable for gene flow.

This changed when the horse was domesticated, and soon herding became the primary economic activity in the region. The horse could survive in the dry conditions and thus created a new kind of economy to support people in between the rivers.

Later, agriculture was made possible in the steppe through industrial scale irrigation.

So if you want farming in the steppe in a Bronze Age analog, you need to make domestication of the horse harder, and / or irrigating the steppe easier.

Ways Ahead: Disease

If there's some kind of parasite or disease that attacks horses, that could make herding difficult in your steppe and push the people towards farming. Think screw flys or tsetse flys.

If you want horses in your story, find a way to control the disease, but make sure that farming is well established first so herding doesn't take over.

Ways Ahead: Irrigation

The map seems to have a fair amount of rivers. Maybe annual flooding creates some temporary lakes, and people have learned over time to dam up the water and save it for later, similar to how the Tocharians survived in the Tarim Basin, which is mostly desert.

  1. Nitpicks:

    • Grassland may or may not be suitable for nomadic pastoralists, but woodland definitely isn't.

    • There is no such thing as woodland steppe. Steppe is grassland by definition. Forest steppe is mixed grassland and woodland.

    • I insist on East European forest steppe, because while a considerable portion of it is indeed in Ukraine, most of it (like three quarters or more) is in Russia and some of it is in Romania.

    • The European forest steppe area gets pretty hot in summer. At its southwestern end, where I live, summer maxima routinely reach 40 °C (104 °F) or above; this is why it is forest steppe and not plain endless forest.

  2. Substantive answer:

    • While I cannot know for sure what the question means by "river valley civilization", I take to mean a sedentary population practicing agriculture. And in this case, I am pretty sure that if there is a mighty river flowing through a lowland plain and other conditions are favorable then chances are there will be extensive agriculture.

    • In fact, almost all the great rivers in the warmer parts of the Old World produced agricultural civilizations, sometimes with a little help from more advanced colonists, but they did produce them.

    • Which brings up the question, why does the question assume that the river wouldn't produce an agricultural civilization? The lower Indus did, and it doesn't really get any hotter than on the lower Indus. The Ganges did, the Yangtze did, the Huanghe did, the Euphrates did. Even the lower Hypanis (which the locals call the Dnieper) did, and it flows through proper steppe; it needed help from Greek colonists, but it did eventually.

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    $\begingroup$ There are major rivers flowing through steppe-like terrain which did not produce any Bronze-age agricultural civilizations. Missouri, Rio Grande, Volga. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 14 at 11:42
  • $\begingroup$ @GiantSpaceHamster: The answer says "Old World". (Because extensive agriculture was not really a thing outside the Old World.) Missouri and Rio Grande are not in the Old World. Yes, the Volga is an exception; that's why I said almost all. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jun 14 at 16:10
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP - well, corn sustained a number of populations in the American Southwest. Yes, including the Rio Grande valley. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 14 at 16:18
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    $\begingroup$ @GiantSpaceHamster the peublo Anasazi would disagree. The near extinction of a civilization does not negate it as being one. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jun 14 at 22:52
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps the reason some rivers didn't produce agriculture civilizations is because of wide changes in temperature over the course of a year. If the people were more nomadic due to temperature variation, they might be far less likely to stay the whole year. As they say in North Dakota, 40 below keeps the others away. The Euphrates delta was almost at a constant temperature in comparison. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Commented Jun 15 at 14:12

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