Present-day Kazakhstan has been inhabited by humans since the earliest Stone Age, generally following the nomadic pastoralism for which the region’s terrain and climate are best suited. Kazakhstan has been peopled for almost 1 million years according to some estimates. In 1958, archeologist H.A. Alpysbayev found Stone Age tools (choppers, bifaces, knives, chisels, scrapers of different types) on Karatau’s ridge near Zhambyl in southern Kazakhstan, which could have been possibly made by Homo Erectus. The most ancient sites were at Arystandy in the Zhambyl region and Shakpakata on the Mangystau peninsula. Over 5000 stone tools, all of them sharp ended choppers, were found at the sites of Shabakty and Borikazgan in Zhambyl.

Neanderthals were inhabiting the Karatau Mountains and Central Kazakhstan 140,000 – 40,000 years ago. Homo sapiens appeared 40,000 – 12,000 years ago in Central, Southern, and Eastern Kazakhstan. After last glacial period ended, 12,500 – 5,000 years ago, human settlement spread across Kazakhstan, ultimately leading to the extinction of large animals (woolly rhinoceros, mammoth). The hunter-gatherer communes invented boats and bows, and employed domesticated wolves and traps for hunting.

The Altai region — positioned where Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan come together — is home to the Denisova cave, famous for the 2010 unearthing of 50,000-year-old fossils of a new kind of humans, the Denisovans. Since then, Neanderthal bones, and Homo sapiens crafted tools have been found in the cave. This makes it the solitary known place where all three hominins have lived. Conditions in the Altai area are stable, so ancient humans may have chosen it to take refuge during glacial interchanges and lived off the diverse game species. Malaya Syya in Khakassia (another ancient archeological site in the region) has been dated to 35,000 B.C.

The expanse of what is now Kazakhstan is known to have been occupied by a series of nomadic tribes and horsemen of which precious little is known because they had no written language and were inclined to stay on the move rather than establish settlements that archaeologists could excavate. Most of what is known has been gathered from a handful of burial places and settlements that have been found.

The steppe zone of Eurasia became wetter in 4th to 3rd millennia B.C. This instigated changes in the life of ancient Kazakh people. Previously nomadic hunters and fishermen gradually started to settle in the valley of the Tobol, Ishim and Irtish rivers. They started to develop cattle-breeding and farming. There is solid evidence that the earliest known domestication of horses started in the Botai (Botay) settlement.

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