In the first millenium before the present era, the Altai mountain region was inhabited by pastoral nomads who had domesticated sheep, horses, and other animals. They used bronze and other metals. The archaeological record of the great kurgan of Pazyryk indicates that the life of the peoples in the period from the fifth to first centuries B.C. was organized into a political society; the herding people were ruled by a kind of chief or local king. The peoples of the Altai were at this time in contact with the Central Asian peoples to the south and to the east. It is difficult to identify the culture or the language of these people, but it is not likely that they were Turkic speaking; the latter peoples came into the region at a later time. The Altai Mountains cannot be regarded as the center from which they dispersed. The region was settled in the first millenium of our era by a new population, who probably were Turkic speakers. In the eighteenth century, small groups of Siberian peoples belonging to the South Samoyed Branch of the Uralic Linguistic Family and to the Yeniseian Linguistic Stock (Ket, Kott, Arin, Assan) still lived in the northern parts of the Sayan Mountains, to the east of the Altai range, even as the Turkic languages were becoming dominant in the entire Altaian part of Asia. It is thought, though it is not firmly established, that the Northern Altaians, the Chelkan and Kumandin (along with groups of the Shor, Khakas, and Tofalar), may be Turkicized Samoyeds or Ket speakers, whereas the Telengit and others living in the south of the Altai region were original Turkic speakers who moved into this region in early historic (ancient and medieval) times.
The chief location of the Samoyeds at present is to the north and west of the Altaians, although once they were also to the east of them; the Ket as well are found chiefly to the northwest of the Altaians, although they also once lived to the east. Because all these peoples belong to different linguistic groups, without connection either to their Turkic-speaking neighbors or to one another, it is most probable that the Altaians moved into their present habitat at a later time, as a part of a general northern movement of the Turkic peoples, the most northerly of whom are the Yakut in central and eastern Siberia. In moving to their present region, the Altaians appear to have settled between the various groups of Samoyeds and Kets.
The Altaians formed a part of the ancient Turkic kingdoms of Central and East Asia, among them the Kök-Türk and Uigur, then later the Kara-Kitay and the Kitan, who ruled briefly in China at the end of the twelfth century; the Altai region was part of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries.
The Altaians submitted to the czarist forces and were incorporated into the Russian Empire in the mid-eighteenth century, at the time of the Russian incursion into Dzungaria.
Elsewhere they were subject to a double yoke—that of the Russians and that of the Chinese.