The relatively favorable climatic conditions of the Minusinsk Basin and the protection provided by the surrounding mountains have attracted human populations to this region since Paleolithic times. During the last several thousand years, in particular, the Minusinsk Basin has been continuously inhabited by a succession of populations whose cultures provide the single most spectacular archaeological continuum in all of North Asia. Starting with the late Neolithic (and still controversial) Tazmin culture (approximately 2000 to 2500 B.C. ) through the subsequent Afanas'evo, Okunevo, Andronovo, and Karasuk cultures, the Minusinsk Basin seems to have been inhabited by semisedentary agriculturalists and cattle breeders with an increasingly strong steppe-nomadic orientation. This development culminated in the late Bronze-Age Tagar culture (700 to 200 B.C. ), connected with the Scythian epoch of Central Eurasian history. According to paleoanthropological data, the Tagar people and most of their local predecessors seem to have had a predominantly Europoid complex of physical features. There then followed the Tashtyk culture (200 B.C. to A.D. 200), which corresponds to the Hunnic period in Central Eurasia and represents a major intrusion of a new Mongoloid population into the Minusinsk Basin. This may be considered the beginning of the formation of the modern Khakas population, although it is obvious that all of the previous periods have also left their genetic and cultural traces on the Khakas.
It is not known which language the Tashtyk people spoke, but evidence from comparative linguistics suggests that an early Turkic idiom may have been involved. In any case, a few centuries later the population of the Minusinsk Basin had become largely Turkic-speaking, as evidenced by the written documents in runic Turkic that have been found in the region. From these earliest Siberian inscriptions, as well as from other historical sources, it is known that the Minusinsk Basin belonged to the sphere of the medieval Turkic nomadic empires (sixth to eighth centuries). Power was subsequently seized by the Kyrgyz tribal union, which for several centuries (ninth to thirteenth) maintained an important Turkic-speaking state centered on the Minusinsk Basin. This state, occasionally called the medieval Khakas Empire, seems to have had a fairly large local population (by some estimates up to 1 million people), some of whom were certainly engaged in settled agriculture. The Khakas Empire finally perished during the turmoils connected with the Mongol expansion under Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, and a considerable part of the local population seems to have moved away from the Minusinsk Basin. It is generally assumed that this wave of Kyrgyz emigrants ultimately contributed to the origination of the modern Tianshan Kirghiz of Central Asia. In a very similar way, when the Russians conquered the Minusinsk Basin they forced part of the local population to move away to neighboring Dzungaria. These emigrants were probably largely absorbed by the Turkic and Mongolic inhabitants of Dzungaria, but a small group was transferred (around the middle of the eighteenth century) by the Manchu government of China to Manchuria, where this group still survives as the modern Manchurian Kirgiz. The latter may thus be considered a diaspora group of the Khakas.
In addition to the ancient Turks and their linguistic heirs in the Minusinsk Basin, the region until recently also had indigenous groups of other ethnolinguistic affiliations. In fact, it seems that the Turkic language never attained a permanent foothold in the eastern half of the Minusinsk Basin. This used to be the realm of southern Yeniseic idioms related to the language of the Ket, whereas the Sayan Mountains supported small Samoyed-speaking populations, linguistic relatives of the Nenets. All of these indigenous ethnolinguistic groups have subsequently disappeared owing to assimilation by both the Khakas and the Russians. Their influence on the modern Khakas is still evident, however, from tribal names and toponyms.
The czarist administrators used to view the Khakas as a conglomeration of feudal units or tribes, each of which had a territory and leadership of its own. Such tribes included, in the first place, the Kacha in the central part of the Khakas territory, the Kyzyl in the northwest, the Sagai and the Beltir in the southwest, and the Koibal in the southeast. The historical background of these tribes is complex, and just how they were classified and named is somewhat artificial (reflecting, for instance, administrative convenience). The same principle of tribal division was applied all over southern Siberia, which ultimately led to the separation of the Chulym Turks in the north and the Shors in the west from the Khakas proper. The tribes later became purely territorial units, for a time known as "steppe dumas." Finally the Soviet government established a single administrative unit for the Khakas, initially called the Khakas Uyezd (1923), then the Khakas Okrug (1925), and subsequently the Khakas Autonomous Oblast (1930). The Khakas Autonomous Oblast, or Khakassia, which has an area of 61,900 square kilometers, comprises the western half of the Minusinsk Basin and corresponds to the historical main territory of the Khakas proper.