Bronze Age Kaska – The World’s First Guerrillas?

The Hittites established one of the earliest great empires in human history. Between 1750 BC and 1200 BC, the Hittite empire was a regional superpower in the Middle East, stretching across modern-day Anatolia and parts of Syria. The Hittites were also one of the first empires to have to face insurgents. The Hittites came into conflict many times with an ethnic group to the north east of their empire known as the Kaskians, or the Kaska. The Kaska used their mountainous and heavily forested homeland near the southern coast of the Black Sea to their advantage, confounding one of the most powerful civilizations in the world. Despite this fact, extraordinarily little is known about the Kaska.

Hittite Accounts of the Kaska

Surviving Hittite accounts of the Kaska simply describe them as a warlike people who did not build cities. They were said to mainly raise pigs and make linen. Hittite accounts also show that the Kaska and the Hittites were bitter enemies who would regularly come into conflict.

These conflicts met with varying success, but were serious enough to demand a response from the Hittites. The Hittite king, Shuppiluliuma I (r. 1370-1330 BC), built a series of forts along the northern border of the Hittite empire, probably partially in response to Kaska raids.


Shuppiluliuma I ( Mehmetalitalat / Wikimedia Commons

Shuppiluliuma I is known for having been one of the more effective Hittite rulers. During his reign the enemies of the Hittites, including the Kaska, were held at bay, and he was able to expand into Syria, making Carchemish a major Hittite center. Nonetheless, Kaska raiders continued to trouble the northern provinces of the Hittite empire into the reign of his successor Murshili II, who added to the fortifications at the northern border specifically to slow the Kaska raids.

It is also believed that the old Hittite capital, Hattusha, may have been sacked by the Kaska. Murshili II’s successor, Muwatalli (r. circa 1300 BC), moved the capital of the Hittite empire to a city further south. While this is likely to have been to support his military campaigns in Syria, it may have also been to increase the distance from the Kaska. Ultimately, it is not known what role the Kaska played in the final downfall of the Hittite empire after 1200 BC, though they were certainly involved.

Outside of Hittite accounts, little is known of the Kaska. They do not appear to have lived in settlements that were made of materials likely to have been preserved, so there is little archaeological evidence to corroborate the Hittite records.

They appear to have been a semi-nomadic people who lived in the forested mountains bordering the southern coast of the Black Sea . They probably practiced a mixture of pastoralism, horticulture, foraging, and hunting. The Kaska may also have been ‘transhumant’, moving nomadically between different elevations, or sometimes latitudes, at different times of the year.

The Middle East in 1300 BC. The Kaskians lived in the mountains bordering the Black Sea, to the north east of the Hittite empire

The Middle East in 1300 BC. The Kaskians lived in the mountains bordering the Black Sea, to the north east of the Hittite empire ( 배우는사람 / Wikimedia Commons)

Most transhumant groups will live at high elevations in mountainous areas during the warmer seasons and move back down to the lowlands during the cooler seasons. Such lifestyles are common in mountainous parts of the world where high elevation areas are too cold to be inhabited for part of the year.

The archaeological record in the area shows that there were also agricultural settlements where the Kaska lived. Most of these settlements were probably Hittite, although Hittite accounts do mention Kaska living in towns. Although most Kaska do not appear to have been full-time farmers, the possibility that some of them lived that way, either in Hittite lands or outside of the Hittite empire, should not be ruled out.

The Kaska probably had both sedentary and non-sedentary segments of their society. Some of them may have practiced pastoralism, while others practiced agriculture and simply interacted with the pastoralists through trade.

The Hittite records imply that, although most Kaska were antagonistic to Hittite governance, some also lived in towns under Hittite occupation. This suggests that there was more than one Kaska faction. This raises the possibility that the Kaska could have originally been more settled, and then later have adopted a semi-nomadic lifestyle due to conflicts with the Hittites.

The sparse archaeological record of the Kaska may also reflect how they lived. The Hittites lived in relatively dense towns and villages. The Kaska, on the other hand, tended to live in small, dispersed settlements in the mountains, and in dwellings that were likely not fully permanent.

The Black Sea mountain region where the Kaska concealed themselves from the Hittites

The Black Sea mountain region where the Kaska concealed themselves from the Hittites ( Ben Bender / Wikimedia Commons

Hittite accounts suggest that the Kaska were good at hiding, thus most of their villages may have been built in isolated locations within the mountains. They were probably also built to not leave much of a trace for outsiders to find. This lifestyle would leave little trace of the Kaska in the archaeological record compared to their Hittite neighbors.

The earliest archaeological site in Anatolia dates to about 1 million years ago, at Dursunlu in central Anatolia. Karain Cave is a prominent Paleolithic Anatolian archaeological site that contains layers representing all three levels of the Paleolithic and the Epipaleolithic, giving a significant cross-section of prehistoric Anatolia.

Around 8,000 BC, the first agricultural communities began appearing in south-eastern Anatolia. These sites were part of a larger phenomenon of a shift towards domestication that included early agricultural centers in the Levant, such as Jericho and Ain Ghazal. A particularly important Neolithic Anatolian site in this context was Catalhoyuk. These early agricultural settlements tended to have rectangular houses, made of mud brick and timber.

The original inhabitants of Anatolia may have spoken an Indo-European language, although there is disagreement on this point. Many linguists and archaeologists believe that the Indo-European language family originated in Anatolia between 6,000 BC and 7,500 BC and began to spread from there.

Whether Indo-European languages were native to the area or introduced, Indo-European speaking peoples were present in Anatolia by the end of the 3rd millennium BC. That is when speakers of a language related to the Indo-European Hittite language begin to make an appearance in history.

The Bronze Age and the Development of City States

The Bronze Age in Anatolia led to the rise of a network of fortified city-states consisting of temples and palaces from the 4th millennium BC. Anatolia became increasingly urbanized with the establishment of large and prosperous towns during this period. One typical artifact of this time is red-black pottery from the trans-Caucasian Kura Araxes culture, which once extended across eastern Anatolia.

Hittite Relief

Hittite Relief ( carolemage / Flickr)

Towards the end of the early Bronze Age, many of these great cities appear to have entered a period of decline, or to have been destroyed. One possibility for this is from conflict between the cities vying amongst themselves for power, while facing incursions from invading groups. From the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, invading pastoralist groups from the steppes north of the Black Sea began to move into Anatolia. Some of them may have become embroiled in conflicts with the Anatolian city-states, and in some cases the invaders probably subjugated pre-existing cities, forming a new elite.

Were the Kaska related to the Hittites?

Were the Kaska among the pastoralist groups that entered Anatolia at this time? If so, could this mean that they were actually related to the Hittites? Unfortunately, given that no significant evidence of the Kaska culture survives to the present day we do not know anything about their language.

Based on what else is known, however, the Kaska were most likely not related to the Anatolian farmers but were likely more closely linked to the people inhabiting the steppes around the Black Sea, which includes the Hittites. This could mean that the Kaska and the Hittites have a similar origin.

The Kaska and the Hittites: A Tale of Two Peoples?

The possibility that the Kaska and the Hittites were related is an interesting one, considering the enmity between the two groups. It is possible that the Hittites may have had more in common with the Kaska, at least linguistically, than the farmers of central Anatolia with whom they had intermarried.

The Hittites and the Kaska, though they may have been originally related, nevertheless appear to have gone in rather different directions in terms of their cultural evolution. It is likely that both peoples migrated from the highlands around the Black Sea into central Anatolia. The Hittites, however, adopted farming and city life. The Kaska, on the other hand, appear to have maintained pastoral and partially nomadic lifestyles, keeping to the mountains and forests.

The Hittite empire was established around 1750 BC by King Pithana and his son Anitta. They conquered several major Anatolian city-states, including Kanesh and Hattusha. A century later, about 1650 BC, King Hattushili I made Hattusha his imperial capital. Hattushili I’s son, Murshili I, went on to raid the city of Aleppo, and apparently sack the great city of Babylon. Upon his return from his campaigns, however, Murshili I was assassinated, and the Hittite empire fell into a temporary decline.

The ‘Lion Gate’ of the old Hittite capital of Hattusha, northern Anatolia

The ‘Lion Gate’ of the old Hittite capital of Hattusha, northern Anatolia ( Bernard Gagnon / Wikimedia Commons)

After 1420 BC, a succession of kings, that included Shuppiluliuma I, created another period of Hittite dominance even in the face of conflict with the Kaska. However, the Hittite empire suffered a final decline in the late 13th century BC, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Before this collapse, however, the Hittite empire made its mark on the history of civilization, setting many historical precedents and legacies. For example, the Hittites had a system of vassalage similar to the later system in medieval Europe . Lesser rulers in Hittite-controlled regions submitted to the Hittite king as vassals.

The Hittites also developed a distinctive legal system, that focused on compensation of the victim instead of retribution. This was at a time when other law codes in the Middle East , such as the Code of Hammurabi, emphasized retribution. Furthermore, the Hittite language was written in cuneiform, and significant amounts have survived. The Hittite empire was powerful enough to be considered a direct rival by ancient Egypt, the other eastern Mediterranean superpower of the day, and likely influenced the future political geography of the Middle East.

Hittite cuneiform tablet

Hittite cuneiform tablet ( Granger / Wikimedia Commons)

While the Hittites likely started out similar to the Kaska, their material culture changed dramatically as they became a major empire that shaped the future cultural and political landscape of the region. The Hittites established an enduring culture and left behind magnificent ruins, whereas the Kaska are only a footnote in the histories of the neighboring Hittite empire.

Some might say that the Hittites won in the end. Just because the Kaska did not play as large or as visible a role in the history of civilization, however, does not mean that they did not play an important role. By challenging one of the major empires of their day, the Kaska also shaped the future political and cultural landscape of the Middle East. Their guerrilla tactics undermined the Hittite military, and the Hittites were never able to subdue them even though they successfully subdued other people groups. The Kaska may even have been responsible for the sacking of the Hittite capital, making them a formidable threat to civilization. In a way, the Kaska were the barbarian invaders of the Hittite world.

The struggles against the Kaska may not have been what led to the downfall of the Hittite empire, but the Kaska were a serious destabilizing influence on the Hittite state. It is possible that had the Kaska not been so persistently hard to handle, the Hittite empire may have lasted longer. In this way, the Kaska were just as influential in the history of civilization. They just were unfortunate enough to not have left behind enduring evidence of their culture.

Legacy of the Kaskians

The Kaska left little trace of themselves in the archaeological record, but they are important in the history of the world as an early example of a people that went to extreme lengths to resist an imperial power. These lengths apparently included concealing themselves in hidden mountain hideouts and living off the land to avoid detection.

The Kaska may be the first recorded masters of guerrilla warfare. In this way they represent one of the earliest manifestations of political movements that intentionally opposed dominance by forces much more powerful and established than them. If the Hittite empire represents an early example of imperialism, the Kaska may represent an early example of anti-imperialist nationalism.

Top Image: The Kaskians defied the great Hittite empire at the peak of their power Source: lobard / Adobe Stock

By Caleb Strom


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