Its blend of desert, steppe, oasis and river valley places Uzbekistan in the heart of the complex interaction of nomadic culture and oasis settlement that patterns the history of Central Asia. Over 100,000 years ago, primitive man was engraving caves in the region with scenes from his hunting lifestyle, but the haze of pre-history only begins to clear in the second millennium ВС, when Bronze Age metallurgy developed the bronze hit, enabling horse riding. The country's better-understood history begins when Iranian nomads first settled the northern grasslands around the turn of the first millennium bc. They lived predominantly along the region's river valleys and made good use of the fertile land for agriculture, even building irrigation channels in the more drought-prone areas.
Mounted tribes sponsored contacts between the farming south and the livestock-breeding north. An Aryan Indo-European race from the north led the first known migration into the territory of present-day Uzbekistan. From 800 BC their successors, the Scythians (to the Greeks) or Saka (to the Persians), swept all before them into a loose nomadic dynasty from the Ferghana Valley to the Khorezm oasis. The Scythians formed a loosely controlled empire stretching from Khorezm in the west to the Fergana Valley in the east. They were skilled raiders with fast, strong horses and formidable iron weapons, and their incursions struck fear into the hearts of neighbouring tribes. These tent-dwellers matured during the Iron Age into skilled craftsmen, but their chief legacy was horseback archery. On top of such military advantage, they set standards of terror for barbaric waves through the centuries. Victories were toasted with the blood of slain enemies, their skulls used as drinking vessels.
The first Achaemenid Emperor of Persia, Cyrus the Great, sought to end their raids and, despite his death in 530 ВС fighting the Messagetae clan near the Aral Sea, his conquests proved lasting. Persian kings divided Turan (outer Iran) south of the Syr Darya into three satrapies: Khorezm (the lower Amu Darya), Sogdiana (the Zerafshan and Ferghana Valleys) and Bactria (southern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan). Achaemenid influence speeded the process of urbanization already underway and installed the state religion, Zoroastrianism, the worship of an all-powerful god through fire offerings. Its origin may have been local for both Khorezm and Bactria claim the site of the revelation of mysterious prophet Zoroaster, 'one who possesses golden camels'. In the sacred book Avesta, the supreme deity declares, "The second among the best localities and countries, I, Ahura Mazda, created Gava, the abode of the Sogdians".
Silk Road trade between Persia and China began to flourish, and the populations of central Asia urbanised and fully participated in it. The Sogdians became particularly wealthy, and their capital Marakanda (today's Samarkand) became rich. The religions of Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, both of which travelled to Uzbekistan along the Silk Road with merchants and missionaries, were in the ascendency.
In the 4th century BC Alexanderthe Great entered Cyrus the Great’s Achaemenid empire. In 329 ВС, the Sogdian capital, Samarkand (Marakanda), an oasis on the Zerafshan river, fell to Alexander the Great. Having vanquished the Persian empire, the Macedonian hero had floated his forces across the Oxus on twig-filled hides and dragged them over the perilous Hindu Kush to the south. He continued down the Oxus, founding the easternmost of many Alexandrias in the Fergana Valley before continuing on towards the Indian subcontinent. Yet once he had departed to found his easternmost Alexandria at the mouth of the Ferghana Valley, Sogdian ruler Spitamenes led his people in a guerrilla war that delayed the Greeks for two years. To ease local dissent, Alexander married the daughter of a Sogdian leader, the captive, beautiful Roxana, who bore him his only son.
Though Alexander himself did not stay in central Asia, many of his troops also married local women and remained, one general establishing the Seleucid Empire. Graeco-Bactrian kingdoms would exert influence in Uzbekistan and the surrounding countries for centuries to come.
Although many states broke away in the mid-third century ВС, as the Parthians rose to the west, Hellenistic culture was promoted through the Greco-Bactrian kingdom for another hundred years until the invasion of Yuezhi nomads from the east. They had been forced from China by the Huns of the Mongolian steppe, the scourge of the Han Dynasty. In 138 ВС Emperor Wudi dispatched Zhang Qian to Ferghana to seek alliance against the Huns, as well as supplies of the valley's renowned heavenly horses, so swift they sweated blood. The envoy brought back neither, although there was news of high demand for Chinese silk. Subsequent campaigns secured the horses, subdued the Huns and opened the fledgling Silk Road. From the first century AD trade prospered from Chang'an (Xi'an) to Rome as Central Asia enjoyed stability under the Yuezhi Kushan clan, masters of a vast empire centred on what is now northwest Pakistan. Their famous King Kanishka promoted Buddhism and the Sogdians relayed it to China, in what was just one aspect of a fruitful cultural and commercial exchange. The hegemony of Sassanian Persia from the third century boosted Sogdian fortunes, for the new power demanded a shift in world trade from Kushan southern routes to a more northerly itinerary through Sogdiana.
Fresh nomadic incursions by the Khidarites and Khionites culminated in the Hephthalites, or White Huns, from the Altai mountains. In the fifth century they devoured the Sassanian eastern empire while the Black Huns and their infamous King Attila ravaged Europe. In turn they fell to the Western Turks (the western branch of the empire of the so-called Kök (Blue) Turks) that came out of the northern steppes by the mid-sixth century. This latest nemesis from Mongolia and eastern Siberia formed the largest nomadic empire yet seen and introduced enduring ethno-linguistic traits. They soon grew attached to life here and abandoned their wandering ways, eventually taking on a significant role in maintaining the existence of the Silk Road. The Sogdian city-states of Ferghana and Zerafshan proved resilient. Their merchants dominated the trade routes and their artists absorbed the traditions of far-off lands.
In the early centuries ad Zoroastrianism remained the dominant religion, but Buddhism was still present, and Manichaeism and Christianity were both on the rise. Uzbekistan was a cultural and ethnic melting pot due to its central position on the Silk Road, and its cities were known for their intellectuals and artisans as well as for trade.
Uzbekistan was about to enter a politically turbulent period, however. Though the Sogdian state persisted, it was ravaged in turn by the nomadic Khidarites and Khionites, and Turkish raiders from Mongolia. The Sogdians were exhausted and fatally weakened by internal divisions.