Scythians

Summary

Scythians (in an Indo-Persian context also Saka) was the name given in antiquity to the members of a group of peoples of Iranian origin, characterized by a culture based on nomadic pastoralism and the breeding of riding horses. The ethnonym “Scythian” has also been used to refer to other peoples with similar customs or who occupied the regions of Russia, Ukraine and Central Asia, known for a long time as Scythia. In a broad sense, Scythians are considered Eurasian nomads, probably mostly speakers of Eastern Iranian languages; they would be the ancestors of the modern Ossetians.

They were mentioned by the literate peoples south of the area they inhabited, which were large areas of the western and central Eurasian steppe, from around the 9th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D. The “classical Scythians” known to ancient Greek historians were mainly of Iranian origin and were located in the northern Black Sea and the region of the Black Sea. The “classical Scythians” known to ancient Greek historians were mainly of Iranian origin and were located in the northern Black Sea and northern Caucasus region. Other Scythian groups documented by Assyrian, Achaemenid and Chinese sources show that they also lived in Central Asia, where they were known as the Iskuzai.

The relationships between these peoples, who lived in such large, widely separated areas, remain unclear, and the term is used both broadly and narrowly. The term “Scythian” is used by modern scholars in an archaeological context for finds believed to show attributes of a broad “Siberian-Scythian” culture, without usually implying an ethnic or linguistic connotation. The term “Scythian” may also be used in a similar way, “to describe a special phase that followed the widespread spread of nomadism on horseback, characterized by the presence of special weapons, horse harnesses, and animalistic art in the form of metal plates.” The westernmost territories during the Iron Age were known in classical Greek sources as Scythia, and in the restricted, strict sense, “Scythia” is restricted to these areas, where Scytho-Sarmatian languages were spoken. In short, the various definitions with which “Scythian” is used leads to some confusion.

The Scythians were among the first peoples to master mounted warfare. They kept herds of horses, cattle and sheep, lived in covered wagons, and fought with bows and arrows on horseback. They developed a rich culture characterized by opulent tombs, fine metalwork and a brilliant artistic style. Some scholars argue that in the 8th century B.C., A Scythian attack on Altai can be “related” to an attack on the Zhou dynasty. Soon after, they expanded westward and conquered the Cimmerians of the Pontic steppe. At their peak, the Scythians dominated the entire steppe, spreading from the Carpathian Mountains in the west to central China (Ordos Culture) and southern Siberia (Tagar Culture) in the east, creating what has been called the first nomadic empire of Central Asia, although there is little that can be called an organized state.

Based in what is now Ukraine, southern European Russia and the Crimea, the Western Scythians were ruled by a wealthy class known as the Royal Scythians or Regii, and established and controlled the Silk Road, a vast trade network connecting Greece, Persia, India and China, perhaps contributing to the contemporary flourishing of those civilizations. The Scythians established and controlled the Silk Road, a vast trade network connecting Greece, Persia, India and China, perhaps contributing to the contemporary flourishing of those civilizations. Sedentary metalworkers made decorative objects for the Scythians. These objects survive mainly in metal, forming a distinctive Scythian art. In the 7th century B.C., the Scythians crossed the Caucasus and frequently plundered the Middle East together with the Cimmerians, playing an important role in the political developments of the region.

During classical antiquity, the Scythians dominated the Pontic steppe, which was called Scythia.

Archaeology has uncovered evidence of Scythian culture in burial mounds in Ukraine and southern Russia.

It is known that they had their antecedents since 2000 BC, but their first appearance in history is an alliance with the Assyrians in the 7th-7th century BC.  Centuries later they collaborated with the Medes – an Iranian tribe related to the Persians – to dismember the Assyrian Empire.

Around 650-630 B.C., the Scythians briefly dominated the Medes of the western Iranian plateau, reaching the borders of Egypt with their power. After losing control over Media, the Scythians continued to intervene in Middle Eastern affairs, with a prominent role in the destruction of the Assyrian Empire in the Sack of Nineveh in 612 B.C. The Scythians subsequently became involved in frequent conflicts with the Achaemenid Empire. The Western Scythians suffered a major defeat against Macedonia in the 4th century BC.

In Late Antiquity they were subdued by the Sarmatians, a culturally related people (Iranian, from Central Asia) who eventually replaced them as masters of the steppes.

In the 2nd century BC, the Eastern Scythians (Saka) of the Eurasian steppe were attacked by the Yuezhi, Wusun and Xiongnu, prompting many of them to migrate to South Asia, where they became known as Indo-Scythians.

Sometime, perhaps as late as the 3rd century AD after the demise of the Han dynasty and the Xiongnu, the Eastern Scythians crossed the Pamir Mountains and settled in the western Tarim basin, where the Khotanese and Tumshuqe Scythian languages are documented in Brahmi scripts of the 10th and 11th centuries. The Khotan kingdom, at least partly Saka, was later conquered by the Qarajanid Khanate, which led to the Islamization and Turkification of northwestern China. In Eastern Europe, in the early Middle Ages, the closely related Scythians and Sarmatians were eventually assimilated and absorbed (i.e., Slavized) by the Proto-Slavic population of the region.

Most of what is known about the Scythians comes from foreign sources, specifically Greek and Latin. The main ones are Book IV of Herodotus’ History (440 B.C.), Strabo’s Geography and Ovid’s poem Epistle from Pontus, which describes mainly Scythia Minor, both from the same period (circa 13 A.D.).

Strictly speaking, “Scythian” refers to the nomads north of the Black Sea and is distinguished from the very similar Sarmatians who live north of the Caspian and later replaced the Scythians proper.

In ancient Chinese sources they are called sai (Old Chinese: *sˤək), for the Sakas who in the past inhabited the valleys of the Ili River and the Chu River and moved to the Tarim basin. Herodotus said that the Scythians called themselves skolotoi.In the Middle Kingdoms of India they were known by the name shaka (a name sometimes restricted to the northernmost of their tribes).

The Persian term saka is used for the Scythians of Central Asia. In Persian documents transliterated into Latin through Greek they are called saces (in Latin the c is pronounced as k), also in Latin the name sarmatae (Sarmatians) is used and in Greek scythae, although the name they gave themselves would have been *alān- or *aryānah. This name has survived in the modern name Ossetian īron (on the other hand the gentilic of the present-day people “Ossetian” is considered to be a variant of Scythian). In other historical sources different names are given to the Scythians:

Iskuzai or Askuzai is an Assyrian term for raiders south of the Caucasus who were probably Scythians. A group of Scythians

Oswald Szemerényi studied the different words for Scythians and gave the following: Skuthes Σκύθης, Skudra, Sug(u)da, and Saka.

In the broadest sense and in archaeology Scythian and Scythian can be used for all nomads of the steppes at the beginning of recorded history. The grasslands of Mongolia and northern China are often excluded, but the Ordos culture and the Tagar culture seem to have had significant “Scythian” features. Often, “Scythian” is restricted to the nomads of the central and western steppe who spoke Scytho-Sarmatian languages of the Iranian family. If other languages were used in the region, there is no evidence.

Literary evidence

The Scythians are first mentioned in historical documentation in the 8th century B.C. Herodotus narrates three contradictory versions regarding the origins of the Scythians, and points out which one he personally considers the most credible:

Herodotus’ accounts of Scythian origins have recently been disdained; although his accounts of plundering activities contemporaneous with his writings have been considered more reliable. Moreover, the term Scythian, like Cimmerian, was used to refer to a variety of groups from the Black Sea to southern Siberia and central Asia. “They were not a specific people,” but rather a variety of peoples “mentioned at various times in history, and in various places, none of which was their original homeland.” The New Testament includes only one reference to the Scythians in the Epistle to the Colossians 3:11.

Archaeology

Modern interpretation of historical, archaeological and anthropological evidence has proposed two broad hypotheses. The first, formally most defended first by Soviet, then Russian researchers, more or less follows Herodotus’ third account, holding that the Scythians were an eastern Iranian group who came from Inner Asia, that is, from the area of Turkestan and western Siberia.

According to a second hypothesis, defended by Ghirshman and others, the Scythian cultural complex emerged from local groups of the “wooden tomb” (or Srubna) culture on the Black Sea coast, although this is also associated with the Cimmerians. According to Dolukhanov, archaeological evidence would support this proposal, as he has found that the Scythian skulls are similar to the preceding finds of the wooden grave culture, and differ from the Sacae of Central Asia. However, according to Mallory, the archaeological evidence is poor, and the Andronovo culture and “at least the eastern aside cases of the wooden grave culture” can be identified as Indo-Iranian.

Others have emphasized that “Scythian” was a very broad term used by both ancient and modern scholars to describe a whole series of otherwise unrelated peoples who shared only certain similarities in way of life (nomadism), cultural practices and language. The 1st millennium BC gave rise to a period of unprecedented economic and cultural connectivity between different and wide-ranging communities. A mobile way of life would have facilitated contact between disparate ethnic groups across the vast Eurasian steppe from the Danube to Manchuria, leading to many cultural resemblances. From the point of view of ancient observers, Greeks and Persians were all grouped together under the ethnic category “Scythians”.

Classical Antiquity (600 B.C. to 300 B.C.)

The earliest records found about the Scythians date from the first half of the 7th century B.C. Herodotus provides the first detailed description of the Scythians. He describes the Cimmerians as a different indigenous tribe, driven out by the Scythians from the northern Black Sea coast (Hist. 4.11-12). Herodotus states (4.6) that the Scythians consisted of the Aucathians, Cathari, Transpis and Paralatians, four tribes which, however, no other ancient author cites.

Darius I, king of the Persians, in 514 B.C. tried to conquer this kingdom, commanding 700,000 men crossing the Danube to the steppes north of the Black Sea, but without succeeding in breaking the Scythians, who terrorized the Persians with showers of arrows that disorganized their ranks, and attacking them fiercely on horseback. According to Herodotus, the nomadic Scythians frustrated the Persian army, allowing them to march through the whole country without engaging in battle. According to Herodotus, Darius thus reached the Volga River.

During the 5th to 3rd centuries BC, the Scythians evidently prospered. When Herodotus wrote his Histories in the 5th century B.C., the Greeks distinguished between a Lesser Scythia, in what is now Romania and Bulgaria, and a Greater Scythia that stretched eastward for a twenty-day ride from the Danube River across the steppes of what is now eastern Ukraine to the lower basin of the Don. The Don, then known as Tanaïs, had served as a major trade route ever since. The Scythians apparently derived their wealth from control over the slave trade from the north to Greece via the Greek Black Sea colonial ports of Olbia, Chersonese, Cimmerian Bosporus, and Gorgippia. They also grew grain, and shipped wheat, herds and cheese to Greece.

During the 4th century BC, the Scythians reached their highest political, cultural and economic development. Many members of the Scythian community became sedentary farmers in the northern part of the Sea of Azov, even reaching the Altai area. There they formed their kingdom with its capital in the city that the Greeks called “Panticapea” (today Kamenskoe Gorodishche).

Strabo (ca. 63 B.C. – 24) narrates that the king Ateas (Geography, VII) unified under his power the Scythian tribes living between the Palus Maeotis and the Danube. Ateas was probably born around 430 BC. He began a series of campaigns that led him to unify many of the Scythian tribes (400 BC), extending his power from the Don River to Thrace. His expansion into the Balkans brought him into conflict with Philip II of Macedon (reigned 359-336 B.C.) after several attempts at an alliance between the two failed. Philip II took military action against the Scythians in 339 B.C. Ateas died at the age of 90 during a battle against Philip of Macedon in the plains of present-day Dobruja (339 B.C.) and his empire disintegrated. In the aftermath of his defeat, the Celts seem to have displaced the Scythians in the Balkans. Meanwhile, in southern Russia, a nearby tribe, the Sarmatians, gradually overtook them. In 329 BC, Alexander the Great, came into conflict with the Scythians at the battle of Jaxartes. A Scythian army sought revenge on the Macedonians for the death of Athenaeus, as they pushed the borders of their empire to the north and east, and to take advantage of a revolt of the local Sogdian satrap. However, the Scythian army was defeated by Alexander at the battle of Jaxartes. Alexander did not intend to subdue the nomads: he wanted to go south, where a much more serious crisis demanded his attention. He could do so now without losing his dignity; and to make the outcome acceptable to the Saccae, he released the Scythian prisoners of war without ransom in order to secure a peace settlement. This policy succeeded, and the Scythians no longer threatened Alexander’s empire. By the time of Strabo’s account (the early epochs of our era), the Crimean Scythians had created a new kingdom extending from the lower Dnieper to the Crimea. The kings Scylorus and Palacus waged wars with Mithridates the Great (reigned 120-63 B.C.) for control of the Crimean littoral, including the Tauric Chersonese and the Cimmerian Bosporus. Its capital, Scythian Neapolis, stood on the outskirts of modern Simferopol. It was later destroyed by the Goths in the mid-3rd century.

Eastern Steppe Sakas

Modern scholars usually use the term saka to refer to the Iranian-speaking tribes that inhabited the eastern steppe and the Tarim basin. Ancient Persian inscriptions also used saka to refer to the western Scythians north of the Black Sea – the Sakā paradraya or “Saka beyond the sea.”

In the Achaemenid-era Old Persian inscriptions found at Persepolis, dating from the reign of Darius I (r. 522-486 B.C.), the Sakas are said to have lived just beyond the borders of Sogdiana. The term Sakā for Sugdam or “Saka beyond Sugda (Sogdiana)” was used by Darius to describe the people who formed the boundaries of his empire at the opposite end from Kush (the Ethiopians) in the west, that is, at the eastern edge of his empire. An inscription dating from the reign of Xerxes I (r. 486-465 B.C.) has them paired with the Dahae people of Central Asia.Two Saka tribes are named in the Behistun inscription, Sakā tigraxaudā (“Saka with caps

Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Persian Empire fought against the Saka, whose women were said to fight alongside their men. According to Herodotus, Cyrus the Great also faced the Masagetes, a people believed to be related to the Saka, while campaigning east of the Caspian Sea and was killed in battle in 530 B.C. Darius the Great also fought against the eastern Sakas, who resisted him with three armies led by three kings according to Polienus. Darius the Great also fought against the eastern Sakas, who resisted him with three armies led by three kings according to Polyene.In 520-519 B.C., Darius I defeated the Sakā tigraxaudā tribe and captured their king Skunkha (reprsented with a pointed hat in the Behistun inscription). The territories of the Sakas were absorbed into the Achaemenid empire as part of Corasmia which included much of Amu Daria (Oxus) and Sir Daria (Jaxartes), and the Sakas then provided the Persian army with a large number of mounted archers in the Achaemenid wars.

In the Chinese Book of Han, the valleys of the Ili and Chu rivers were called the “land of the Sai”, that is, the Saka. The exact date of their arrival in this region of Central Asia is unclear, perhaps it was just before the reign of Darius I. About thirty Saka tombs in the form of kurgans (burial mound) have also been found in the Tian Shan area dated between 550-250 BC. Indications of Saka presence have also been found in the Tarim Basin region, possibly as early as the 7th century B.C. Some modern scholars believed that the sacking of Haojing, capital of the Western Zhou dynasty, in 770 B.C. may have been related to a Scythian attack from the Altai Mountains prior to their westward expansion.

However, as a result of the struggle for supremacy between the Xiongnu and other groups, the Saka were driven into Bactria, and later southward to northwest India and eastward to the oasis city-states of the western Tarim basin, Xinjiang region of northwest China.

Accounts of the emigration of the Sakas appear in Chinese texts such as the Shiji of Sima Qian. The Indo-European Yuezhi, who originally lived between Dunhuang and the Qilian Mountains of Gansu, China, were attacked and forced to flee the Hexi corridor of Gansu by the Mongol forces of the Xiongnu ruler Modun, who conquered the area in 177-176 BC. In turn, the Yuezhi were responsible for attacking and punishing the Sai (i.e., the Saka) by pushing them southwest toward Sogdiana, where in the mid-second century B.C. the latter crossed the Sir Daria into the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, but also into the Fergana Valley where they settled at Dayuan. The ancient Greco-Roman geographer Strabo argued that the four tribes of the Asii, who defeated the Bactrians in the Greek and Roman account, came from lands north of the Sir Daria where the Ili and Chu valleys are located. The Saka then migrated to the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent where they became known as Indo-Scythians, as well as eastward to settlements in the Tarim basin in what is now China, such as Khotan and Tumshuke.

Khotan and the kingdoms of the Tarim basin

The Saka migrated from Bactriana where they eventually settled in some of the oasis city states of the Tarim Basin that sometimes fell under the influence of the Chinese Han dynasty (202 B.C.E. – 220). These states in the Tarim basin included Khotan, Kashgar, Shache (莎車, probably named after the Saka inhabitants), Yanqi (焉耆, Karasahr) and Qiuci (龜茲, Kucha).

The official administrative language of Khotan and nearby Shanshan was Gandhari Prakrit in Kharosthi script. There are however indications that the saka were related to the ruling elite – 3rd century documents from the Shanshan archive the title of the king of Khotan as hinajha (i.e., “generalissimo”), an Iranian-based word equivalent to the Sanskrit title senapati, and yet nearly identical to the Khotanese saka hīnāysa recorded in later documents. The reigning periods also appeared in Khotanese as kṣuṇa, “implying an established connection between the Iranian inhabitants and the royal power,” according to the late professor of Iranian studies Ronald E. Emmerick (d. 2001). He stated that royal decrees in Khotanese Saka language of Khotan date from the 10th century “makes it most likely that the ruler of Khotan was an Iranian speaker.” Moreover, he argued that the earliest form of Khotan’s name, hvatana, can be semantically related to the name Saka.

During the Chinese Tang dynasty (618-907), the region again passed to Chinese sovereignty with the conquest campaigns of Emperor Li Shimin (r. 626-649). From the late 8th to the 9th century, the region changed hands between the Chinese Tang empire and the rival Tibetan empire. The kingdom existed until it was conquered by the Muslim Turkic peoples of the Qarajanid Khanate, which led to both Turkification and Islamization of the region.

Indo-Scythians

After the Saka migrated to the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent, the region became known as the “land of the Saka” (i.e., Drangiana, from modern Afghanistan and Pakistan). This is attested in a contemporary Karosti inscription on the Mathura lion capital belonging to the Saka kingdom of the Indo-Scythians (200 B.C. – 400) in northern India, roughly the same time the Chinese document that the Saka had invaded and settled in the country of Jibin 罽賓 (i.e., Kashmir, in what are now India and Pakistan). In the Persian language of contemporary Iran the territory of Drangiana was called Sakastāna, in Armenian it is Sakastan, with a similar equivalent in Pahlavi, Greek, Sogdian, Syriac, Arabic and the Middle Persian language used in Turfan, Xinjiang, China.

Late Antiquity

In Late Antiquity, the notion of a Sarmatian ethnicity became more vague and foreigners could call any people inhabiting the Pontic steppe as “Scythians”, regardless of their language. Thus Priscus, a Byzantine emissary to Attila, repeatedly referred to the latter’s followers as “Scythians.” But Eunapius, Claudian and Olympiodorus usually mean “Goths” when they write “Scythians”.

The Goths had displaced the Sarmatians in the 2nd century from most of the areas bordering the Roman Empire, and in the early medieval period, the early Slavs (Proto-Slavs) marginalized the Eastern Iranian dialects in Eastern Europe as they assimilated and absorbed the Iranian ethnic groups in the region. The Turkic migration linguistically assimilated the Saka in Central Asia.

Although the classical Scythians may have largely disappeared by the 1st century BC, the eastern Romans continued to speak, by sheer convention of “Scythians” to designate Germanic confederations and tribes or Eurasian nomadic barbarians on horseback in general: in 448 two “Scythians” led the emissary Priscus to Attila’s camp in Pannonia. The Byzantines in this case carefully distinguished the Scythians from the Goths and Huns who also followed Attila.

The Sarmatians (including the Alans and eventually the Ossetians) counted as Scythians in the broadest sense of the word – as speakers of Eastern Iranian languages, and are considered to be mostly of Iranian descent.

Byzantine sources also mention Rus plunderers who attacked Constantinople around 860 in contemporary accounts as “Tauroscythians”, due to their geographical origin, and despite their lack of any ethnic relationship with the Scythians. Patriarch Photius may have been the first to apply the term to them during the siege of Constantinople in 860.

Scythian archaeological remains include kurgan tombs (ranging from simple specimens to elaborate “royal kurgans” containing the “Scythian triad” of weapons, horse harnesses, and wild Scythian-style animal art), gold, silk, and animal sacrifices, in places where human sacrifice is also suspected to have occurred. Mummification techniques and permafrost have aided in the relative preservation of some remains. Scythian archaeology also examines the remains of Scythian fortifications and cities in northern Pontus.

Spectacular Scythian finds in the Arzhan tombs, and others in Tuva have been dated from about 900 B.C. onward. A tomb in the lower Volga gave a similar date, and one of the Steblev tombs from the eastern European end of the Scythian region was dated to the late 8th century BC.

Archaeologists can distinguish three periods of Scythian archaeological remains:

From the 8th to the 2nd century B.C., archaeology documents a separation between two distinct settlement zones: the older one in the Sayan-Altai area of Central Asia, and the younger one in the northern Pontic area of Eastern Europe.

An alternative scheme, relating the “strict” definition at the western end of the steppe and moving into Europe, is:

Kurganes

These large mound burials (some up to 20 meters high) provide the most valuable archaeological remains associated with the Scythians. They appear along the Eurasian steppe belt, from Mongolia to the Balkans, through the steppes of Ukraine and southern Russia, extending in great chains for many kilometers along ridges and river basins. From them archaeologists have learned much of Scythian life and art. Some Scythian tombs reveal traces of Greek, Chinese, and Indian craftsmanship, suggesting a process of Hellenization, Sinicization, and other local influences among the Scythians.

The Ukrainian term for such burial mounds, kurhan (Ukrainian: Курган) as well as the Russian term kurgan, derive from the Turkic word for “castle.”

Some Scytho-Sarmatian cultures may have given rise to the emergence of Greek stories about Amazons. Tombs with armed women have been found in southern Ukraine and Russia. David Anthony notes, “about twenty percent of the Scytho-Sarmyrian “warrior tombs” in the lower Don and lower Volga contained women dressed for battle as if they were men, a style that may have inspired Greek tales of Amazons.”

Excavations at the Sengileevskoe-2 kurgan found layered gold bowls indicating a strong opium drink used while cannabis burned nearby. The gold bowls depict scenes showing clothing and weapons.

Pazyryk Culture

Eastern Scythian burials documented by modern archaeologists include the Kurgans at Pazyryk in the Ulagan (Red) district of the Altai Republic, south of Novosibirsk in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia (near Mongolia). Archaeologists have deduced the Pazyryk culture from these finds: five large burials and several smaller ones between 1925 and 1949, one opened in 1947 by Russian archaeologist Sergei Rudenko. The burial mounds concealed chambers of large logs covered with extensive mounds of boulders and stones.

The Pazyryk culture flourished between the 7th and 3rd centuries BC in the area associated with the Sacae.

Normally Pazyryk tombs contain only everyday utensils, but in one, among other treasures, archaeologists found the famous Pazyryk carpet, the oldest surviving wool oriental rug. Another surprising find, a three-meter high, four-wheeled funerary cart, survived well preserved from the 5th or 4th century BC.

Excavations in Bilsk

Excavations in a Bilsk village near Poltava (Ukraine) have uncovered a “vast city”, larger in area than any other city of the time (Bilsk Settlement). It has been tentatively identified by a team of archaeologists led by Boris Shramko as the site of Gelono, the supposed capital of Scythia. The city’s impressive walls and vast area of forty square kilometers exceed even the outlandish size recounted by Herodotus. Its location on the northern edge of the Ukrainian steppe would have allowed strategic control of the north-south trade route. Judging from finds dating from the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., Greek pottery and craft workshops abounded.

Treasure of Tillia Tepe

In 1968 in Tillia tepe (literally “the golden hill”) in northern Afghanistan (ancient Bactria) near Šibarġan a site consisting of the tombs of five women and one man was found with extremely rich jewelry, dated to around the 1st century BC, and probably related to that of the Scythian tribes that usually lived a little further north. Although the tombs have provided several thousand pieces of fine jewelry, usually made from a combination of gold, turquoise and lapis lazuli.

A high degree of cultural syncretism permeates the finds, however, Hellenistic artistic and cultural influences appear in many of the human forms and representations (from amulets to rings with the representation of Athena and her name inscribed in Greek), attributable to the existence of the Seleucid empire and the Greco-Bactrian kingdom in the same region until around 140 BC, and the continued existence of the Indo-Greek kingdom in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent until the beginning of our era. This attests to the wealth of cultural influences in the Bactrian area at that time.

Tribal divisions

The Scythians lived in confederated tribes, a political form of voluntary association that regulated pastures and organized a common defense against invading neighboring pastoral tribes of mainly horse herders. While the productivity of domesticated animals greatly exceeded that of agricultural societies, the pastoral economy also needed supplementary agricultural products, and stable nomadic confederations developed symbiotic or forced alliances with sedentary peoples – in exchange for animal products and military protection.

Herodotus reports that the three main tribes of the Scythians descended from three brothers, Lipoxais, Arpoxais, and Colaxais.

Herodotus also mentions a royal tribe or clan, an elite that largely dominated the other Scythians:

The rich burials of Scythian kings in burial mounds (often known by the Turkic name kurgan) is evidence of the existence of a powerful elite. While an elite clan is cited in some classical sources as the “regal Dahae,” the Dahae themselves are generally considered to be an extinct Indo-European people, who occupied what is now Turkmenistan, and were distinct from the Scythians.

One of the stories Herodotus tells about the origin of the Scythians is of a mythical nature, about certain magical objects that fell from the sky:

{{citation

Although scholars have traditionally treated the three tribes as geographically distinct, Georges Dumézil interpreted the divine gifts as symbols of social occupations, illustrating their trifunctional function of early Indo-European societies: the plow and the yoke symbolize the farmers, the sagaris – the warriors, the bol – the priests. According to Dumézil, “the unsuccessful attempts of Arpoxais and Lipoxais, in contrast to the success of Colaxais, may explain why the highest layers was not that of the farmers or the magicians, but rather that of the warriors.”

Customs

Their contemporaries considered them savages and bloodthirsty because they drank the blood of their first victim in battle and wore human scalps.

Some Scythian tribes did not bury their dead and expected the vultures to eat them, similar to Zoroastrian rites, and if this happened it was an omen of well-being for the tribe. The eagle was an incarnation of the wind god for some of them, they copied this belief from the Sumerians. Also before a war they sent evil thoughts as arrows to the enemies to kill them and if these did not die or got sick they proceeded to war. The tribes called “royal Scythians” who settled in Ukraine, sowed wheat to sell it to the Greeks.

In addition to the historical origin, according to some legends it is attributed to this people that they descended from the very Zeus of Olympus. The Scythians believed that gold had been provided to them by the Arimaspos, one-eyed beings, who had stolen treasures from the griffins’ nests.

The Hebrews believed that the Cimmerians (who in the Bible are known as descendants of Gomer, the grandson of Noah by Japheth, his son) were the mother tribe of the horse-breeding Scythians, who in the Book of Genesis 10, 2-3 are known in turn as descendants of Askenaz (or Ashkenazi), the first of the three sons of Gomer mentioned in the Bible in Genesis. Also Magog, the second of the seven sons of Japheth mentioned in the Bible, is considered a Scythian breeder of Bactrian horses and camels. Centuries later Josephus confirms this belief in his history of the Israelite people.

Several historians commented on the impossibility of Darius I (Persian king of the Achaemenid dynasty) to conquer the region occupied by the Scythians despite having already triumphed over Anatolia and conquered other important territories. His predecessor on the throne Cyrus the Great perished at the hands of a Scythian tribe, the Masagetes, during one of his military campaigns.

At the archaeological level, numerous gold handicraft objects of great elaboration with equine motifs have been discovered, as they were excellent horsemen, experts in making bows and inventors-users of the double-curved arch, or portraying their daily life; also the tomb of the kings, which were large burial mounds (kurganes) where, after strangling them, their closest servants, concubines and even horses were buried next to the monarch.

Militarism

A warrior people, the Scythians were known, in particular, for being great horsemen and in war they were fearsome horse archers. They are noted for their early use of the compound bow shot from horseback. The Scythian bow was rather small to be used comfortably on horseback, composed of wood, bone and animal sinew, recurve, it was a formidable weapon. The horsemen, moreover, carried a characteristic quiver called “gorytos”, which contained both the arrows and the small but powerful bow. In addition, the Scythian nobles formed a cavalry elite, with better armor and certain precursor pieces of future cavalry bards. They were equipped with spears, javelins, axes “sagaris” (which was adopted by many Persians and later by the Macedonians) and shields. Over time, they developed shock tactics, although they never abandoned bows as a weapon. Typical Scythian armor consisted of a leather coselete with iron pieces for mounted archers. In addition, the Scythians developed the first iron or bronze scale helmets sewn overlapping the leather coselets. They had both helmets of bronze plates, as well as their traditional peaked felt caps (Phrygian caps, similar to those of the Thracians, for example), reinforced with metal scales. They also used to adorn themselves and their mounts with abundant gold work.

Scythian swords were about 7 dm long and evolved over time: from a straight two-edged blade they changed to a single-edged, isosceles triangle-shaped blade. The handles and blades were profusely decorated, some were authentic works of art. Later some Scythian tribes settled and became farmers around the Black Sea. These tribes reduced their cavalry and began to bring in competent infantry, basically archers and auxiliary troops.

With great mobility, the Scythians could take on larger infantry and cavalry by simply retreating into the steppes. Such tactics wore down their enemies, making it easier to defeat them. The Scythians were warriors known for their aggressiveness. They “fought to live and lived to fight” and “drank the blood of their enemies and used their skulls as napkins”.

Ruled by a small group of closely allied elites, the Scythians had a reputation as archers, and many were employed as mercenaries. Scythian elites had as tombs kurgans: high mounds piled over chambered tombs of larch wood, a deciduous conifer that may have had special significance as a tree of life-renewal, as it stands naked in winter. Burials at Pazyryk in the Altai Mountains include some spectacularly preserved Scythians of the “Pazyryk culture” – including the Ice Maiden of the 5th century BC.

The Ziwiye hoard, a hoard of silver and gold objects as well as ivory, found near the town of Sakiz south of Lake Urmia and dating between 680 and 625 B.C., includes objects with Scythian “animalistic style” features. A silver plate from this site has some inscriptions, as yet undeciphered, and it is possible that it represents some kind of Scythian writing.

The Scythians also had a reputation for the use of poisoned and barbed arrows of various types, for a nomadic life centered on horses – “they fed on the blood of horses” according to Herodotus – and for their skill in guerrilla warfare.

Clothes

Herodotus tells that the Scythians used cannabis, both to weave their clothes and to clean themselves in their smoke (archaeology has confirmed the use of cannabis in funerary rituals).

Men and women dressed similarly. A burial at Pazyryk, discovered in the 1990s, contains the skeletons of a man and a woman, each with weapons, arrowheads, and an axe. The finds at Pazyryk provide the largest number of almost completely preserved clothing worn by Scythian peoples.

An Asian saka cap is clearly seen on a bas-relief of the Apadana staircase at Persepolis – tall pointed cap with flaps over the ears and nape of the neck. From China to the Danube delta, men seem to have worn a variety of soft caps – some conical and others more rounded, resembling a Phrygian cap.

Women presented a greater variety of headdresses, some of conical shape, others more like flattened cylinders, also adorned with metal plates (gilded). Based on finds at Pazyryk (also seen in rock drawings in southern Siberia, Uralica and Kazakhstan) some headdresses were topped with zoomorphic wooden carvings firmly attached to a cap and forming an integral part of the headdress, similar to the helmets that have come down to us from the nomads of northern China.

Both male and female warriors wore tunics, often embroidered, adorned with pieces of felt, or metal plates (gilded).

The apadana of Persepolis serves, again, as a good place to start analyzing the robes of the sakas. They appear to be an ornament of long sleeves, sewn, understood to be knee-length and wearing a belt while weapons were attached to the belt (sword or dagger, gorytos, battle axe, whetstone, etc.). According to numerous archaeological finds in Ukraine, southern Russia and Kazakhstan, male and female warriors wore tunics with long sleeves and always belted, often with rich ornaments. The saka of Kazakhstan (e.g. the Maiden

Scythian women wore long, loose clothing, ornamented with metal (gold) plates. Women wore shawls, often richly decorated with metal (gold) plates.

Men and women wore coats, for example the Pazyryk sakas had many varieties, from fur to felt. They may have worn a riding coat that later became known as a meda or Kantus garment. Long-sleeved, and open, it seems to be what the Skudrana delegation wore at the Persepolis apadana. The Pazyryk felt tapestry shows a horseman wearing a billowing cloak.

Men and women wore long pants, often adorned with metal plates and embroidery or decorated with felt appliqués; pants may have been wider or tighter depending on the region. The materials used depended on wealth, climate and need.

Men and women warriors wore various types of boots, some longer and some shorter, felt-leather-wool boots and moccasin-type shoes. They were of the simple or laced type. Women often wore soft shoes with metal (gold) plates.

Both sexes wore belts. Those of warriors were made of leather, often with gold or other metal trimmings and had many leather straps attached to tie the owner’s gorytos, or sword, molas stone, whip, etc. Belts were tightened with metal or horn buckles, leather straps, and horn or metal belt plates (often gilded).

Scythian contacts with craftsmen in Greek colonies along the northern shores of the Black Sea resulted in the famous Scythian gold ornaments that are among the most glamorous artifacts in the world’s museums. Ethnographically also extremely useful, the gold depicts the Scythians as bearded, long-haired Caucasoid men. The “Greco-Scythian” works depicting Scythians within a much more Hellenic style date from a later period, when the Scythians had already adopted elements of Greek culture, and the more elaborate actual pieces are assumed to have been made by Greek goldsmiths for this lucrative market. Other metal pieces from the other end of the Eurasian steppe use an animalistic style, showing animals, often in combat with their legs bent underneath. The origins of this style are still debated, but it probably both received and influenced the art of neighboring sedentary peoples, and acted as a rapid route for the transmission of motifs across the breadth of Eurasia.

Surviving Scythian artifacts are mostly portable pieces made of metal: elaborate personal jewelry, weapon ornaments and cavalry ornaments. But finds from permafrost sites show rich and brightly colored textiles, leatherwork and woodwork, not to mention tattoos. Western royal pieces executed Central Asian animal motifs with Greek realism: winged griffins attacking horses, deer in battle, reindeer, and eagles, combined with everyday motifs such as sheep milking.

In 2000, the traveling exhibition “Scythian Gold” presented to the North American public objects made for Scythian nomads by Greek craftsmen from the northern Black Sea, and buried with their Scythian owners under burial mounds on the plains of what is now Ukraine. In 2001, the discovery of unaltered Scythian royal burial mounds illustrated Scythian animalistic style gold that lacks the direct influence of Greek styles. Forty-four pounds of gold weighed on the royal couple in this burial, discovered near Kyzyl, capital of the Siberian republic of Tuva.

Ancient influences from Central Asia were identified in China after contacts of metropolitan China with nomadic frontier territories in the west and northwest from the 8th century B.C. The Chinese adopted Scythian-style animalistic art from the steppes (depictions of animals engaged in combat), particularly rectangular belt plates made in gold or bronze, and created their own versions in jade and steatite.

After their expulsion by the Yuezhi, some Scythians may also have migrated to the Yunnan area in southwest China. Scythian warriors may also have served as mercenaries for the various kingdoms of ancient China. Excavations of prehistoric art from the Dian civilization of Yunnan have revealed hunting scenes of Caucasoid horsemen in Central Asian garb.

Scythian influences have been identified as far afield as Korea and Japan. Several Korean artifacts, such as the royal crowns of the Silla kingdom, are said to be of Scythian design. Similar crowns, achieved through contact with the mainland, can also be found in Kofun-era Japan.

Religion

The religious beliefs of the Scythians were of the pre-Zoroastrian Iranian type of religion and differed from post-Zoroastrian Iranian thought. The prominent figure of the Scythian pantheon is Tabiti, who was later replaced by Atar, the fire pantheon of the Iranian tribes, and Agni, the fire deity of the Indo-Aryans. Scythian belief was a more archaic stage than both Zoroastrianism and Hinduism. The use of cannabis to induce trance and divination by augurs was a feature of the Scythian belief system. One class of priests, the enarei, worshipped the goddess Argimpasa and assumed female identities.

Territory

Scythia was an area of Eurasia inhabited in ancient times by an Iranian people known as the Scythians. Its location and extent varied over time, from the Altai region, where Mongolia, China, Russia, and Kazakhstan meet, to the lower Danube and Bulgaria.

Their territory extended for some 6,000 km, from Hungary to Manchuria, thanks to a key fact in their culture: the domestication of the horse. In Manchuria, tombs have been found with mummies of people of this culture: long hats, red hair and rich goldsmithery. The Greco-Latin historians of antiquity placed the Scythians (Scythia) on the northern coast of the Black Sea, the plains north of the Caucasus and in the area north of the Caspian Sea; although the territory occupied by the Scythians, with borders (especially the northern ones) poorly defined, fluctuated constantly, so that the ancient Chinese chronicles locate Scythian populations in areas that currently correspond to Xinjiang.

Given their way of life and production (hunter-gatherer and predator people) and the fact that they were great horsemen, their territory was, in general terms, that of the extensive steppe belt in the center of Eurasia.

In the northeastern part of the Scythian nation (in the middle reaches of the Volga River above Samara) lived the Buddhins and Gelonos.

Ethnography

They were grouped in the form of bands of hostile marauders. Their faces were weather-beaten and they wore long disheveled or braided hair, and the adults wore beards. They used to drink from human skulls (of their enemies), of which they kept the scalp as a trophy. To better withstand hunger during their long marches through the steppes and deserts they used to tighten their belts.

The men, especially during combat, adorned themselves with hats displaying antlers (especially deer antlers), tattooed their bodies and stuck a saber in the ground to worship it as a representation of the god of war. They assimilated the Greek war god Ares. They had no temples to worship their gods. Their colorful clothes, made of leather, fur and felt, were also striking, and they used to represent animals in a very stylized and dynamic way (in short, a typical style of the so-called art of the steppes).

Also, thanks to the study of DNA, it has been necessary to change the approach of how their society was, given that almost half of the burials considered before of males belonged to women, almost always with injuries in the skull or broken bones by weapons, which indicates that, as the Greek myth about the Amazons said, the Scythian women fought in equality with men, and that boys and girls were educated in the same way. Even some women reached the highest position of leadership: as Espariza, princess who grouped several tribes to defend themselves from the Persians, whom they rejected.

They lived in branch huts mounted on their massive wheeled carts, constantly on the move between the Danube and the Don or much farther away. The huts were round or rectangular, generously proportioned, with two or three rooms. Their walls were generally made of wicker, but they were also built with branches tied with straps, and covered with mud or felt to protect them from the rains and snow. The smaller ones moved on four wheels and the larger ones on six, being pulled by oxen.

They were skilled horsemen and better warriors and used the bow and arrow. Even on horseback they had an amazing ability to shoot. They used rudimentary saddles without stirrups, but were extremely skilled at keeping their balance on the animal. This, in times when European peoples had not developed their cavalry corps and only possessed infantry and chariots, allowed them to deploy devastating maneuvers of great mobility, exhibiting intelligent tactics, the result of generations of mounted combat. Thanks to this, they were able to make incursions into the Near East.

They did not conceive of life without horses (they often decorated their horses’ tails by braiding them so that they resembled a bunch of snakes), even death: a rich Scythian could take up to a hundred horses to the grave. They also used them as food, eating them and milking the mares to make cheese and kumis (an alcoholic yogurt-based drink).

They used leather armor and clothes with narrow sleeves that allowed them freedom of movement. In addition to a bow and arrow, they used a straight-bladed bronze or iron sword and a leather shield reinforced with metal plates. During their raids they rode, maintaining a remarkable harmony of movement, and even fed themselves mounted on their horses, which they obtained from the wild herds of the steppes. Many of their customs were later adopted by the Huns.

Each man had a large number of wives and their retinue. The courts of the rich looked like marketplaces, where the least important of the wives could have as many as 20 mobile homes for their servants. Polygyny had economic reasons. The men were in charge of hunting and warfare, while the women were in charge of animals, food production, house construction, tanning skins, with which they made clothes and shoes, and other elements with which they also traded. On the other hand, given the sexual division of labor that existed among them and the nature of the activities assigned to the males (hunting, predation and warfare), it is almost certain that there was a high mortality rate of males of reproductive age, so the way to compensate for the “deficit” of males was polygyny.

Since they did not know writing, we do not have Scythian documents, but they are historically recognized by the descriptions made by Herodotus, Hippocrates and others. These writers have described in the same way several tribes with similar behavior, especially in their funeral traditions, of which we know the great pomp they exhibited at the time of burying their kings or important personages. Thus, the term Scythian does not designate a single people, but numerous groups of individuals who shared a common culture.

Their graves were highly visible, as they buried their dead by highlighting their location by piling earth and rocks to form mounds (kurganes, in Russian), trusting that their enemies would not disturb their dead in their final resting place, given the fear that the Scythians aroused in those they subdued.

During the 18th century, Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, built the Imperial Museum where part of the treasures found in southwestern Russia, between the steppes of the Dniester and Volga rivers, where there are an estimated 100,000 such burial mounds, with the Siberian area of Minunsinsk having the largest concentration of these tombs. The pieces recovered from the Scythian tombs are currently housed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

The Scythian group of languages in the ancient period are essentially unproven, and their internal divergence is difficult to judge. They belonged to the Eastern Iranian language family. Whether all the peoples included in the archaeological “Scytho-Siberian” culture spoke languages of this family is uncertain.

The Scythian languages may have formed a dialect continuum: “Scytho-Sarmatian” in the west and “Scytho-Jotanese” or Saka in the east. The modern scholarly consensus is that the Saka language, ancestor of the Pamir languages in northern India and Jotanese in Xinjiang, China belongs to the Scythian languages. The Scythian languages were generally marginalized and assimilated as a consequence of Slavic and Turkic expansion during Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Some remnants of the eastern groups have survived as the modern Pamiri and Pashto languages in Central Asia. The western (Sarmatian) group of Old Scythian survived as the medieval language of the Alans and eventually gave rise to the modern Ossetian language.

Evidence of the Middle Iranian “Scytho-Jotanese” language survives in Northwest China, where documents in the Saka-Jotanese language, ranging from medical texts to Buddhist literature, have been found mainly in Khotan and Tumshuke (northeast of Kashgar). These are texts well before the arrival of Islam in the region under the Turkic Qarajanids. Similar documents in the Saka-Jotanese language were found in Dunhuang and date mostly from the 10th century.

The first physical analyses have unanimously concluded that the Scythians, even those from the east (as for example in the Pazyryk region), possessed predominantly “europid” traits, although mixtures with “Euro-Mongoloid” phenotypes also appear, depending on the place and period.

In works of art, the Scythians displayed European features. In his History, Herodotus describes the Buddhins of Scythia as having “intensely blue eyes and a ruddy complexion. In the 5th century B.C., the Greek physicist Hippocrates argued that the Scythians had purron (ruddy) skin. In the 3rd century B.C., the Greek poet Callimachus described the Arimaspos of Scythia as light-haired, the Greek poet Callimachus described the arimaspos of Scythia as light-haired. The 2nd century B.C. Chinese envoy Han Zhang Qian described the sai (saka) as having blue and yellow eyes (probably meaning hazel or green). In his Natural History, the 1st century Roman author Pliny the Elder characterizes the beings, sometimes identified as Iranians or Tocarii, as red-haired and blue-eyed. In the late 2nd century, the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria says that the Scythians were light-haired. The 2nd century Greek philosopher Polemon includes the Scythians among the northern peoples characterized by red hair and blue-gray eyes. In the late 2nd or early 3rd century, the Greek physician Galen states that Sarmatians, Scythians and other northern peoples have reddish hair. The 4th century Roman historian Amianus Marcellinus wrote that the Alans, a people closely related to the Scythians, were tall, fair-haired and light-eyed. Gregory of Nyssa, bishop of Nyssa in the 4th century wrote that the Scythians were fair-skinned and fair-haired. The 5th century physician Adamantius, who often follows Polemon, describes the Scythians as light-haired. It is possible that Adamantius’ and Gregory’s later physical descriptions of the Scythians refer to East Germanic tribes, as Roman sources often referred to the latter as “Scythians”.

Herodotus

Herodotus wrote about a huge city, Gelono, in the northern part of Scythia, in the country of the Buddhins, perhaps a place near modern Bilsk, Kotelva Raion, Ukraine:

Herodotus and other classical historians listed a number of tribes that lived near the Scythians, and presumably shared the same environment and nomadic culture of the steppes, often called “Scythian culture”, even though scholars may have had difficulty determining the exact relationship to the “linguistic Scythians”. A partial list of these tribes includes the Agatirsos, the Gelonos, the Budinos and the Neuros.

Herodotus presented four different versions of Scythian origins:

Persians and other peoples in Asia refer to Scythians living in Asia as Sakas.

Strabo

In the 1st century B.C., the Greco-Roman geographer Strabo gave an extensive description of the Eastern Scythians, whom he placed in Central Asia beyond Bactria and Sogdiana.

Strabo went on to list the names of the various tribes he believed to be “Scythians,” and in doing so almost certainly conflated them with unrelated tribes of eastern central Asia.

Indian sources

Sakas are frequently mentioned in Indian texts, including the Puranas, the Manusmriti, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Maha-bhashia of Patanjali.

Numerous samples of ancient mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) have been obtained from remains in Bronze and Iron Age burials in the Eurasian steppe and Siberian forests, the putative “ancestors” of the historical Scythians. Compared to Y-DNA, mtDNA is easier to extract and amplify from some ancient specimens due to numerous copies of mtDNA per cell.

Older studies could only analyze segments of mitochondrial DNA, thus providing only broad affinity correlations with modern Western Eurasian or East Eurasian populations. For example, in a 2002 study the mitochondrial DNA of the skeletal remains of a male and a female from the Saca period from a double Kurgan inhumation at the Beral site in Kazakhstan was analyzed. It was found that these two individuals were not closely related. The mitochondrial HV1 sequence of the male was similar to the Anderson sequence that is most frequent in European populations. The female’s HV1 sequence suggested a closer resemblance to Asian origins.

More recent studies have been able to type specific mtDNA lineages. For example, a 2004 study examined the HV1 sequence obtained from a “Scytho-Siberian” male at the Kizil site in the Altai Republic, which belonged to the maternal N1a lineage, a geographically western Eurasian lineage. It belonged to the N1a maternal lineage, a geographically western Eurasian lineage. Another study by the same team, again of mtDNA from two Scytho-Siberian skeletons found in the Altai Republic, showed that they had been typical males of “mixed Euro-Mongoloid origin”. One of the individuals was found to have the F2a maternal lineage, and the other the D lineage, both being characteristic of East Eurasian populations.

These early studies have been elaborated by a growing number of studies by Russian researchers. The conclusions are (i) an early Bronze Age mixing of both East and West Eurasian lineages, with Western lineages found well into the East, but not vice versa; (ii) an apparent reversal in Iron Age times, with an increasing presence of East Eurasian lineages in the Western Steppe; (iii) the possible role of migrations from the south, the Balkan-Danubian and Iranian regions, into the Steppe.

Ancient Y-DNA data was finally provided by Keyser et al in 2009. They studied the haplotypes and haplogroups of 26 ancient human specimens from the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia dating from the mid 2nd millennium BC and the 4th century (Scythian and Sarmatian time period). Almost all of the subjects belonged to haplogroup R-M17. The authors suggest that their data demonstrate that between the Bronze and Iron Ages the constellation of populations variously known as Scythians, Andronovians, etc. were blue or green-eyed, fair-skinned and light-haired people who may have played a role in the early development of the Tarim Basin civilization. Moreover, this study found that they were genetically closer to modern Eastern European populations than to those of Central and South Asia. The ubiquity and dominance of the R1a Y-DNA lineage contrasted sharply with the diversity seen in the mitochondrial DNA profiles.

However, this comparison was made on the basis of what is now seen as an unsophisticated technique, microsatellite (STRs). Since the 2009 study by Keyser et al, population and geographically specific SNPs have been discovered that can accurately distinguish between “European” R1a (M458, Z280) and “South Asian” R1a (Z93) Re-analyzing ancient Scytho-Siberian examples for these more specific subclades would clarify whether the populations of the Eurasian steppe were ultimately of European or Eurasian origin, or, perhaps, both. This, in turn, could also depend on which population is studied, i.e., the “classical” European Scythians of Herodotus, the Central Asian Saka, or unnamed nomadic groups in the far east (Altai region) who also belong to the Scythian cultural tradition.

According to a 2017 study of mitochondrial lineages in Iron Age Black Sea Scythians, a comparison of Scythian mitochondrial lineages from the Northern Pontic region with other ancient groups suggests close genetic affinities with representatives of the Bronze Age Srubnaya population, which is in agreement with the archaeological hypothesis suggesting the Srubnaya people as the ancestors of the NPR Scythians.

Recently, new aDNA tests were performed on several ancient samples all over Eurasia, among them from two Scythian burials. This time modern SNP techniques were used (as compared to STRs from previous tests). The Iron Age Scythian samples from the Volga region and the European steppes do not seem closely related to either Eastern Europeans or South or Central Asians. Based on the results both samples seem to have a linkage between the Iranian-speaking people of South-Central Asia and both the people of the northern regions of Western Asia and Eastern Europeans. This fits with their geographical origin.

Extensive ancient genome-wide analysis on samples from the Southern Uralic region, Eastern Kazakhstan and Tuva shows that the Western and Eastern Scythians emerged independently in their respective geographic regions and during the 1st millennium BC experienced significant population expansions with asymmetric genetic fluidity from Western groups in the study towards Eastern ones, rather than in the other direction. The Iron Age Scythians included a mixture of Yamnaya people, from the Russian steppe, and East Asian populations, similar to the Han and Nganasan people (a Samoyedic people of northern Siberia). East Asian admixture is widespread among various modern-day peoples of Siberia and Central Asia. Contemporary populations united with Western Iron Age Scythians can be found among various ethnic groups of the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia, scattered among many Iranian and Indo-European speaking groups. Populations with genetic similarities to Eastern Scythian groups are found almost exclusively among Turkic language speakers, particularly of the Kipchak branch of Turkic languages. These results are consistent with gene flow across the steppe territory between Europe and East Asia.

Early modern use

Because of their reputation established by Greek historians, the Scythians long served as the epitome of savagery and barbarism. In the New Testament, in a letter attributed to Paul “Scythian” is used as an example of people whom some regard pejoratively, but who are, in Christ, acceptable to God:

Shakespeare, for example, alluded to the legend that Scythians ate their children in his play King Lear:

Or the one who disorders his generation To overwhelm his appetite, shall be to my bosom¨. Be also neighbor, pitied and relieved,

Characteristically, early modern English discourse on Ireland frequently resorted to comparisons with the Scythians to confirm that Ireland’s indigenous population was descended from these ancient “coconut men,” and were shown to be as barbaric as their supposed ancestors. Edmund Spenser wrote that

The 15th-century Polish chronicler Jan Długosz was the first to link the prehistory of Poland with the Sarmatians, and the connection was undertaken by other historians and chroniclers, such as Marcin Bielski, Marcin Kromer, and Maciej Miechowita. Other Europeans relied on their view of Polish Sarmatism in Miechowita’s Tractatus de Duabus Sarmatiis, a work that provided a substantial source of information about the territories and peoples of the Republic of the Two Nations in a language of international popularity. Tradition specified that the Sarmatians themselves were descendants of Japheth, son of Noah.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, foreigners regarded Russians as descendants of the Scythians. It became conventional to refer to Russians as Scythians in 18th-century poetry, and Alexander Blok drank in this tradition sarcastically in his last great poem, The Scythians (1920). In the 19th century, romantic revisionists in the West transformed the “barbaric” Scythians of literature into free and wild, harsh and democratic ancestors of all blond Indo-Europeans.

Claims of descendants

A number of groups have claimed descent from the Scythians, including the Ossetians, Pashtuns (in particular, the Sakzai tribe), the Khat people and the Parthians (whose homelands would lie east of the Caspian Sea and who were thought to have come there from the north, from the Caspian). Some legends of the Poles, the Picts, the Gaels, the Hungarians (in particular, the Yasians), among others, also include mentions of Scythian origins. Some writers claim that Scythians figured in the formation of the empire of the Medes and likewise of Caucasian Albania.

Scythians also appear in some national legends originating from the Celts. In the second paragraph of the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), the elite of Scotland claim that Scythia was a former homeland of the Scots. According to the 11th century work Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland), the 14th century Auraicept na n-Éces and other Irish folklore, the Irish originated from Scythia and were descendants of Fénius Farsaid, a Scythian prince who created the Ogham alphabet.

The Carolingian kings of the Franks traced their Merovingian ancestry to the Germanic tribe of the Sicambrians. Gregory of Tours documents in his History of the Franks that when Clovis was baptized, he was referred to as a Sicambrian with the words “Mitis depone colla, Sicamber, adora quod incendisti, incendi quod adorasti.” The Chronicle of Fredegarius in turn reveals that the Franks believed that the Sicambrians were a tribe of Scythian or Cimmerian descent, who had changed their name to Franks in honor of their chief Franco in 11 BC.

Based on such accounts of Scythian founders of certain Celtic as well as Germanic tribes, British historiography in the period of the British Empire, such as Sharon Turner in her History of the Anglo-Saxons, made them the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons.

The idea was taken up in the British Israelism of John Wilson, who adopted and promoted the idea that the “European race, particularly the Anglo-Saxons, were descended from certain Scythian tribes, and these Scythian tribes (as many had previously claimed from the Middle Ages onwards) were themselves descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.” Tudor Parfitt, author of The Lost Tribes of Israel and professor of modern Jewish studies, points out that the evidence cited by those who defended British Israelism is “of weak composition even by the low standards of the genre.”

Some existing peoples are attributed an almost direct origin from the Scythians, among these are the Osetas of Caucasia and even the Yázigas who inhabit the eastern part of Hungary, but in the case of the Osetas an Alano lineage (see Alania) seems to predominate over the probable Scythian lineage. As for the Yázigas, like the Cumans, they have been acculturated with the Magyars for about a century.

To learn more

Sources

  1. Pueblos escitas
  2. Scythians
  3. Potts, D. T. (1999). The Archaeology of Elam: Formation and Transformation of an Ancient Iranian State (en inglés). Cambridge University Press. p. 345. ISBN 978-0-521-56496-0.
  4. Sinor (1990, p. 97)
  5. Bonfante (2011, p. 110)
  6. André Martinet, Des steppes aux océans : l’indo-européen et les Indo-européens, Paris, Payot, 1986, p. 68.
  7. L’énigme indo-européenne, p. 34
  8. a b et c (en) John V Day, Indo-European origins, Institute for the Study of Man, 2001.
  9. a b et c Les Scythes, p. 334.
  10. a b et c Lebedynsky 2011, chap. IV.
  11. ^ (EN) Di Cosimo N, The Northern Frontier in Pre-Imperial China (1.500 – 221 BC), in Loeuwe M e Shaughnessy EL (a cura di), The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC, Cambridge University Press, 1999, ISBN 9780521470308.«Even though there were fundamental ways in which nomadic groups over such a vast territory differed, the terms “Scythian” and “Scythic” have been widely adopted to describe a special phase that followed the widespread diffusion of mounted nomadism, characterized by the presence of special weapons, horse gear, and animal art in the form of metal plaques. Archaeologists have used the term “Scythic continuum” in a broad cultural sense to indicate the early nomadic cultures of the Eurasian steppe. The term “Scythic” draws attention to the fact that there are elements – shapes of weapons, vessels, and ornaments, as well as lifestyle – common to both the eastern and the western ends of the Eurasian steppe region»
  12. ^ L’interpretazione riferita da Citati, p. 317 riprende la tesi di Véronique Schiltz Les Schytes e les nomades des steppes.
  13. ^ Scythian /ˈsɪθiən/ or /ˈsɪðiən/, Scyth /ˈsɪθ/, but note Scytho- /ˈsaɪθoʊ/ in composition (OED).
  14. ^ see section about names below
Ads Blocker Image Powered by Code Help Pro

Ads Blocker Detected!!!

We have detected that you are using extensions to block ads. Please support us by disabling these ads blocker.