In the pre-Revolutionary period the Kazakhs were prominent on the Eurasian Steppe, leading nomadic and seminomadic life-styles. Their chief occupation was livestock raising; the animals were kept in pastures year-round. These pastures were divided according to season—summer, spring/fall, and winter, based on when grass was sufficient, in turn depending on climatic conditions. The summer pastures were located in the north, in the steppe zone, with abundant, lush grass. It was impossible to remain there during the winter, however, as the huge amount of snow would not permit the livestock to graze. Therefore the nomadic livestock breeders were required to move with their herds far to the south to the desert and semidesert zones in the winter, where vegetation flourished after the autumn rains and where there was little snow. Sometimes the migration reached upwards of 1,000-1,500 kilometers. En route, the nomads would stay for a short while at the spring/fall pastures when they were migrating to the north in the spring and to the south during the fall. Such a migratory system was quite widespread among the Kazakh nomads and seminomads; it has been designated "meridianal" in the literature.
In the mountainous regions the nomadic and seminomadic Kazakhs passed the winter in the valleys of the mountain rivers and ravines, where there was little snow, whereas in the summer they and their herds went high into the mountains to the alpine and subalpine meadows. This type of migration is called "vertical."
The particular nomadic life-style determined the specific makeup of the herd. The domesticated animals had to withstand travel during the lengthy migration and, crucially, had to be able to procure food for themselves from under the snow during the winter. The horse was most suited to these conditions and was thus highly prized among the Kazakhs. The horse was also the main transport and riding animal, able to cover a long distance in a relatively short time. The horse also supplied kumys, which has been revered since the days of the Scythian nomads. Horse meat was also considered most tasty and nutritious; horse hair was used in the preparation of strong, thick ropes.
In early childhood the Kazakh nomad was given a colt, which she or he called by name, looked after, and by the age of 5 to 7 was already riding. Adult Kazakhs, both men and women, were spectacular riders; so great was there skill that several researchers noted that the rider seemed to become one with the horse. The importance of the horse in the life of the Kazakh nomads is further attested by the fact that instead of "to the left" the Kazakhs say "mounting side" ( minar yak); instead of "to the right" they say "whip[-holding] side" ( kamshi yagt ) . From as early as the Scythian-Sak period, nomadic livestock breeders have revered the horse as a totemic animal.
Sheep have no lesser significance to the Kazakh nomads and seminomads. As with the horse, the Kazakhs had their own particular breed of sheep, which was well suited to the conditions of year-round pasturing without warm refuge during the winter. "Fatty-tail" sheep were particularly prized—that is, sheep that instead of a tail had a large fatty growth that reached a weight of 10-16 kilograms. Kazakhs get all that is necessary for life from sheep. From its wool they make felt, with which they cover the traditional nomadic dwelling, the yurt, and make felt carpets decorated with multicolored ornamentation. They cover the earthen floor in the yurt with these carpets. In the winter the Kazakhs put stockings of thin felt in their boots for warmth. Felt is also used as a saddlecloth.
From sheepskins, which the Kazakhs, as a rule, process themselves, they sew warm coats, hats, and sometimes men's trousers. The pelts of domestic animals, including sheep, are sent to market. A minority of Kazakhs also raise goats, from which they also get milk, meat, wool, and pelts.
Camels serve as the basic beast of burden among the Kazakh nomads and seminomads. During the migrations they load all domestic goods on them, including the dismantled parts of the yurts. Kazakhs keep fewer camels than they do other domestic animals, however. Even rich families possess no more than fifty to sixty camels; other households, the poorer ones, have no more than three or four—that is, only as many as are required to transfer all domestic items during the migrations. In several regions of Kazakhstan—on the Mangyshlak Peninsula, for example—the Kazakhs drink shubat (the sour milk of camels), which is their preferred beverage. Camel's wool is valued for its great warmth. Like the horse and the sheep, the camel is highly esteemed by the Kazakhs. Muslims view it as a holy animal.
The Kazakhs also raise cattle. Among the nomads, it is true that there are only a few, and often none, because they are not suited for long and rapid migrations and are not capable of procuring food for themselves from underneath the snow. Relatively more cattle are found among the seminomads, who, in contrast with the nomads, undertake shorter migrations and prepare hay for the livestock to eat during winter. Cattle are not only a source of milk, meat, and leather; they are also the principle beast of burden in agricultural endeavors.
In general, the Kazakhs grew a variety of grains: wheat, millet, a little rye, barley, and others. At present Kazakh farmers, for the most part, raise the best kinds of wheat: the so-called hard (durum) wheats. The cultivation of rice, peas, corn, and industrial crops, especially cotton and tobacco, is widespread. In the south of Kazakhstan, the cultivation of fruits and vegetables is developing.
In a number of regions of Kazakhstan where the conditions are suitable for irrigation agriculture—along large rivers and lakes, for example, or in foothill regions where streams abound—the Kazakhs have always practiced agriculture.
Food. Kazakhs make butter and various types of curds and cheese from sheep's milk. The most widespread is a dry cheese from sour milk, kurt. It is one of the chief means of nourishment for the average Kazakh in the winter months, when there is no milk. The Kazakhs always boil sheep or cow's milk; only mare's milk is used fresh and, in this case, always soured. The most beloved and widespread Kazakh dish is boiled lamb, in Kazakh bes barmak ("five fingers," since the Kazakhs, like many other Eastern peoples, eat with their hands). They give the specially prepared lamb's head to the most esteemed guest.
Division of Labor. The community is divided into smaller units, auls, which consist of closely related families headed by the senior member, an aksakala ("white beard"). Usually this is the father, although the adult married sons head the other households. After the father's death, his oldest son becomes head of the aul.
The households of the aul cooperate in many labor-intensive activities, such as tending the livestock. The most difficult jobs necessitate the strength of many workers; for example, the shearing of sheep in spring and fall requires the combined efforts of the households and auls of the entire nomadic community. At present, Kazakhs are trying to preserve the traditional forms of the family, especially in rural areas; under urban conditions, this is obviously more difficult.
Land Tenure. The summer pastures are usually under the governance and use of individual clans, which consist of several nomadic kin groups or communities. The winter pastures, as a rule, are in the common use of the small nomadic community. Water sources for livestock are a chief concern of the nomadic breeders. Best of all are natural sources: rivers, streams, lakes, and so forth. Frequently, however, livestock can slake their thirst only from wells; therefore these are the property of the individual households that dug them, or of the aul. The right to use the pastures nearest to the well follows from this. There are also wells that belong to the entire clan. As a rule, such wells were dug long ago. The land-use pattern of the seminomadic Kazakhs is similar, but in contrast with the nomads, they also have hay-growing areas for the preparation of winter fodder. As a rule, these hay-growing areas are under the control of individual households and are spread out near the winter pastures. Also located here are the arable lands: seminomadic Kazakhs engage in varying degrees in agriculture along with raising livestock. The poorer a household is, the more it relies on agriculture. The poorest families, who have no livestock, have abandoned seminomadism and live year-round in one location, engaging in agriculture or some other business. Thus, they constitute the settled population among the Kazakhs.
Industrial Arts. In addition to raising livestock and practicing agriculture, the Kazakhs engage in a variety of manufactures. Only women process wool and prepare various items from it, but both men and women process leather and pelts. Woodworking and metalwork are in the domain of the men. Traditionally, only Kazakh men were occupied with tending the livestock (including the milking of the horses), whereas women performed all domestic tasks, including the erecting and dismantling of the yurts during the migrations. Notable for their quality are the preparation of various felts and the working of leather and pelts for clothing, various types of skin vessels, saddles, and so forth. Woodworking is widespread, including the preparation of the wooden parts of the yurt, saddles, trunks, and wooden vessels, which like the skin vessels are indispensible in nomadic conditions. Many wooden products are adorned with carvings. One of the most ancient trades of the Kazakhs is metalwork: the fabrication of weapons and instruments of labor as well as household items. The art of silver adornment is highly refined.
The years of Soviet dominance were marked by the fostering of a nihilistic attitude toward national culture; as a result, many traditional Kazakh trades disappeared almost completely. Only in the present has a rebirth of traditional Kazakh trades occurred, in conjunction with a general rebirth of national culture.
Clothing. The traditional Kazakh national costume was closely tied to their nomadic life-style. Thus, the oldest materials used in clothing preparation were cloths woven from camel or sheep wool, thin felts, skins, and fiar. In ancient times, however, they had already begun sewing clothing from manufactured fabrics—cottons, silks, and wools from Central Asia, China, and, from the eighteenth century on, from Russia. In our own time, fabrics of industrial manufacture have supplanted all others. The men's outfit traditionally consisted of an undershirt and pants, which in the summer also served as work clothes. Over the shirt, men wore long beru kavkas or beshmets (quilted coats, narrow but widening toward the bottom, knee-length with long sleeves). The shapan —a robe with long sleeves tapering from the shoulder to the fingers, with a stand-up collar, worn open and therefore always with a belt—was ubiquitous. Poor Kazakhs fashioned their shapans from home-woven camel wool; the rich, however, made them from velvet, heavy cloth, or silk of bright colors. Depending on the weather, Kazakhs would wear one shapan over another. In the wintertime, they wore coats sewn from sheepskin—either double-sided or not—or from skins of lamb, ferret, marten, and fox. The outer trousers were made of skins adorned with ornaments, especially among the rich. When setting off on a long journey, the Kazakh horseman inserted the flaps of all the robes he was wearing into these trousers. Their high-heeled boots, sewn of strong skins, were well suited to riding.
The traditional winter headgear of the Kazakhs was a pointed fur cap ( tymak ) with earflaps of lamb's wool or even sable fur, with a felt base covered by heavy cloth. Factory-made caps with earflaps have almost completely supplanted them. In the summer Kazakhs wore hats made from thin white felt with bent-back flaps ( kalpak ) ; recently such hats have also been replaced by factory-made ones, including ones of felt. It has again become fashionable, however, especially among youths, to wear the traditional felt caps which, incidentally, provide better protection against the cold. These caps have turned into a distinctive "ethno-designative" feature. Bashlyks with a crown with a small peak and flaps to cover the ears and neck were sewn from felt and later from cloth. It was usual that the head was always covered, even at night during sleep, if only with a tyubeteika (Central Asian embroidered skullcap).
Traditionally, all Kazakh men shaved their heads as well as their mustaches and beards around the lips. At present, only elderly men shave their heads, and most men let their mustaches and beards grow.
The belt was an indispensible part of the traditional costume; Kazakhs tied it over the shapan or trousers, especially when they were preparing to ride. Belts were of silk fabric or skins—the latter were decorated with metallic plates, of silver and sometimes even precious stones, among the rich.
The Kazakh women, like the men, wore a shirt and trousers as undergarments. Sometimes, however, the shirt was long and tunic-shaped and served as a dress. Fashioned out of cotton fabric, the shirt-dress was white (but dark for older women and of bright and variegated colors—usually red—for younger women). Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, Kazakhs began to sew these brought in at the waist, to which they attached a wider lower part at the gathers. As an adornment to this lower part of the dress, younger women sewed on two or three frills of the same material. Sometimes they embroidered them and covered them with braids and silk ribbons.
Over the dress women wore sleeveless tunics extending down to the knees, with an open collar and a clasp at the belt. They also wore beshmets. These were sleeveless ones, fashioned of thick cotton, wool, silk, or velvet fabrics. Red, green, or raspberry beshmets of velvet were particularly prized. The women, like the men, wore robes when out and about and sheepskin overcoats in the winter.
Women's footwear consisted of leather boots sewn for one foot—that is, without distinguishing the left side from the right. They also sewed soft boots of green and red leather and adorned them with embroidery. Women's trousers were of almost the same cut as the men's.
A great diversity existed in women's headgear. Variations pointed to age differences, family position, or membership in a given clan. Thus, girls wore elegant caps with a cloth crown, which they decorated without fail, and a fur cap-band ( boryuk ) . The decoration was finished with eagle-owl feathers, which had a protective function. The young women wore the most expensive female headdress, saukele. This consisted of a tall (up to 70 centimeters) cone of felt, covered in expensive fabric and richly ornamented with various pendants, fur, and precious stones. Along the sides of the saukele descended corals, pendants of beads, and other decorations. From the back of the saukele women attached long, richly embroidered and adorned ribbons or kerchiefs of expensive fabric. Among the rich, the worth of the saukele could reach up to 2,000 silver rubles. Therefore, the saukele passed from one generation to the next in Kazakh families.
In the year after marriage, the young woman donned the headdress of the married woman, which represented a type of cowl of white fabric covering the head, shoulders, breast, and back. Kazakhs call such a headdress kimeshek. Young and middle-aged women decorated theirs with embroidery on the outward-facing side; those of the elderly were not embroidered. Among the various Kazakh clan groups, this headgear was differentiated according to cut, form, and dimensions of the part covering the back. Women wore the kimeshek when at home, and, when going out, they put on a white turban of great width over it.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, multicolored silk shawls with tassels imported from Russia came into fashion. Today, particularly in rural areas, women wear headgear according to their age; if young girls or women appear in public without headgear, they meet with great disapproval from the older generation. Girls do not necessarily wear a headdress at home, especially the daughter of the master of the house. If a young woman wears a headdress, it indicates that she is marriageable.
Women and girls also differed from one another in hairstyle. The former braided their hair into two or three plaits, whereas the girls had many thin braids, sometimes as many as thirty. Young women and girls adorned their braids with shells, metallic plates, pearls, and coins. Rich Kazakh women sported many silver adornments—rings, bracelets, earrings, breast pendants, and so on. Some of these adornments had a sacred significance. Thus, the arms of a woman were considered unclean if she wore no bracelets. As with men, an indispensible attribute of the female costume was a richly ornamented belt of beautiful fabric or even skin.
Many researchers note the influence of the Tatar outfit on both the Kazakh men's and women's attire and, from the mid-nineteenth century, of Russian-style clothing, especially in the cities. In the present, as was noted above, individual parts of the traditional Kazakh attire that serve as ethno-designative features have been preserved. The national costume has been retained to a great degree in rural areas and among the elderly population, especially by the women, as well as among those who most uphold the occupations of the traditional branches of the economy—shepherds, for example. In general, however, Kazakhs today wear clothes of urban cut and of factory manufacture.