Environmental Archaeology

Pontic steppe

April 30, 2013, 4:11 pm
Content Cover Image

Margin of the Pontic steppe along the Black Sea margin, Romania. @ C.Michael Hogan

The Pontic steppe covers an area of some 383,800 square miles, extending from the northern shores of the Black Sea eastward to northwest Kazakhstan. This ecoregion is in the Temperate Grasslands, Savannas and Shrublands biome. The expansive prairie of the Pontic steppe has a large extent of fertile soils and level topography that is inviting to grain cultivation; in fact, the western portion of the ecoregion was a target for early Greek and Roman colonization, due to the rich granary as well as near shore fisheries. However, considerable loss of habitat occurred during the Soviet era of central planning and collective farming. These losses and resulting habitat fragmentation are extant today.

There are a total of 511 vertebrate species recorded in the Pontic steppe ecoregion, including 21 threatened species, one of which is an endemic; moreover, there are 26 threatened bird taxa, four threatened reptiles and two threatened amphibians among the vertebrates. The ecoregion's natural environment is particularly rich in mammalian diversity among the mustelids, ground squirrels and other rodent species.

Location and general description

caption Pontic steppe ecoregion (in yellow). Source: World Wildlife Fund Stretching from the northern shores of the Black Sea in Romania to the Ural Mountains, the Pontic steppe is an element of the larger Eurasian steppe ecoregion system, which extends eastward into Siberia and Mongolia. The ecoregion, also known as the Pontic-Caspian steppe, is bounded at the north by the East European forest steppe, a transitional zone of mixed grasslands and temperate broadleaf and mixed forests. The ecoregion roughly corresponds to the combined ancient geographic regions of Scythia and Sarmatia.

Wheat farming begun by indigenous tribes in the Bronze Age, and accelerated by the ancient Greeks and Romans, leaves a continuing legacy on the landscape. There are also several prominent rivers that bisect the ecoregion, most notably the extensive braided channel architecture of the Danube Delta.

Biodiversity features

caption Speckled ground squirrel, Ukraine. Source: V.A.Lobkov Threatened mammals of the Pontic steppe are: the Near Threatened Bechstein's bat (Myotis bechsteinii), the Near Threatened Schreiber's long-fingered bat (Miniopterus schreibersii), the Near Threatened Caucasian mountain ground squirrel (Spermophilus musicus), the Near Threatened speckled ground squirrel (Spermophilus suslicus), the Vulnerable European ground squirrel (Spermophilus citellus), the Near Threatened western barbastelle (Barbastella barbastellus), the Endangered European mink (Mustela lutreola), the Near Threatened European otter (Lutra lutra), the Vulnerable giant mole rat (Spalax giganteous), the Near Threatened giant noctule (Nyctalus lasiopterus), the Near Threatened Kluchor birch mouse (Sicista kluchorica), the Near Threatened leopard (Panthera pardus), the Near Threatened long-clawed mole vole (Prometheomys schaposchnikowi), the Vulnerable marbled polecat (Vormela peregusna), the Vulnerable Mehely's horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus mehelyi), the Vulnerable Podolsk mole rat (Spalax zemni), the Near Threatened pond bat (Myotis dasycneme), the Near Threatened Romanian hamster (Mesocricetus newtoni), the Vulnerable Russian desman (Desmana moschata), the Endangered endemic sandy mole rat (Spalax arenarius) and the Critically Endangered saiga (Saiga tatarica).

caption Red-footed falcon. Source: Jutta Luft Special status avian taxa in the ecoregion are: the Vulnerable aquatic warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola), the Near Threatened black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa), the Near Threatened black-winged pratincole (Glareola nordmanni), the Near Threatened Caucasian grouse (Tetrao mlokosiewiczi), the Vulnerable Dalmatian pelican (Pelicanus crispus), the Vulnerable yellow-breasted bunting (Emberiza aureola), the Endangered Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus), the Near Threatened Eurasian curlew (Numernius arquata), the Near Threatened European roller (Coracias garrulus), the Near Threatened ferruginous pochard (Aythya nyroca), the Vulnerable great bustard (Otis tarda), the Near Threatened great snipe (Gallinago media), the Vulnerable greater spotted eagle (Aquila clanga), the Vulnerable imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca) the Vulnerable lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni), the Vulnerable lesser white-fronted goose (Anser erythropus), the Near Threatened little bustard (Tetrax tetrax), the Vulnerable marbled teal (Marmaronetto angustirostris), the Near Threatened pallid harrier (Circus macrourus), the Near Threatened red kite (Milvus milvus), the Endangered red-breasted goose (Branta ruficollis), the Near Threatened red-footed falcon (Falco vespertinus), the Vulnerable saker falcon (Falco churrug), the Near Threatened semi-collared flycatcher (Ficedula semitorquata), the Endangered white-headed duck (Oxyura leucocephala) and the Critically Endangered sociable lapwing (Vanellus gregarius).

Threatened amphibians of the Pontic steppe are represented by the Caucasian toad (Bufo verrucossimus) and the Near Threatened Danube newt (Triturus dobrogicus)

Threatened reptiles of the ecoregion include the Near Threatened European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis), the Near Threatened four-lined rat snake (Elaphe quatuorlineata), the Vulnerable Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca) and the Vulnerable Ursini's viper (vipera Ursinii).


caption Ancient ruins of Histria, Romania. @ C.Michael Hogan Archaeological evidence along the northern shoreline of the Black Sea evinces human habitation as early as the Middle Paleolithic, 120,000 to 35,000 years before present. The period 4200 to 3700 BC throughout the Dobrogean region is characterised by the Hamangia culture. Excavations at Histria as well as Baia-Hamangia, Ceamuria and Golovita evince rich ceramic materials as well as sophisticated sonte tools. Ceramics recovered during the Hamangia period include globe-shaped vessels, bitronic vases, marble idols and a rich array of glasswares. Among the stone tool finds are blades, grinding tools, axes and grain mills.

Research into the flora of this era indicate that the Neolithic Period at Histria involved complex agriculture and advances in crop productivity for these early farmers. At the end of the Neolithic period (3700 to 3200 BC), tool advances were made with increasing occurrence of piercing capability, as well as spatulas, antler ploughs and silex blades. Polychrome ceramics were first observed in the region within this climax of the Neolithic. The perimeter of the Black Sea represents an important series of colonies for the Ancient Greeks, and an early model for colonial mixing of literate invaders with indigenous pastoral nomads. The ecoregion, in fact, takes its name from Pontus Euxinus, which was the ancient Greek appellation for the Black Sea.

The ecoregion is deemed to have been the locus of original domestication of the horse, based upon DNA evidence. Correspondingly a portion of the Northern Silk Road traversed a portion of the Pontic steppe, leading to the earliest trans-Asia trade routes.

Current status

The Pontic steppe ecoregion has been given a conservation Status of Critical/Endangered; however it has not been assigned a G200 designation, meaning the World Wildlife Fund does not classify it as of the highest conservation priority viewed in a worldwide perspective.

caption Baillon's Crake (Porzana pusilla) Photograph by Paul Gale Types and severity of threats

A chief threat to the ecoregion is conversion of land for agricultural usage. During the Soviet period  central planning functions led to poor management of much of the steppe, resulting in extensive loss of habitat and also to habitat fragmentation. Much of the steppe has been converted to wheat farming, a practice that was well established dating back to the era of Greek colonisation of the Black Sea northern coast.

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation

This ecoregion is equivalent to the DMEER (2000) unit of the same name. It comprises Bohn et al. (2000) lowland colline herb-rich grass steppes, herb-grass steppes, grass steppes, and desert steppes.


  • caption Yagodnaya Polyana, Saratovskaya, Russia. Source: Kris Ball Neal Ascherson. 1996. Black Sea. Macmillan. 305 pages.   books.google.com
  • Udo Bohn, Gisela Gollub, and Christoph Hettwer. 2000. Reduced general map of the natural vegetation of Europe. 1:10 million. Bonn-Bad Godesberg
  • Digital Map of European Ecological Regions (DMEER), Version 2000/05 http://dataservice.eea.eu.int/dataservice/metadetails.asp?table=DMEER&i=1
  • C.Michael Hogan. 2007. Silk Road, North China. ed.A.Burnham. Megalithic Portal
  • Lawrence Krader. 1955. Ecology of Central Asian Pastoralism, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 11, No. 4
  • Paul Lachlan MacKendrick. 2000. The Dacian Stones Speak. 272 pages. University of North Carolina Press
  • B.N.Puri. 1999. "The Sakas and Indo-Parthians". In Dani, Ahmad Hasan; Masson, Vadim Mikhaïlovich. The Dawn of Civilization: Earliest Times to 700 BC. History of Civilizations of Central Asia. I. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
  • World Wildlife Fund. 2010. Pontic steppe




Hogan, C. (2013). Pontic steppe. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbf3c77896bb431f6ae0bc