FIG 1.2. Tuva monument, mounted nomad archeress and falconer

The Eagle Huntress: Ancient Traditions, and Evidence for Women as Eagle Hunters – Part I

(Read the article on one page)

Evidence that Nomad Women Hunted with Eagles since Antiquity

"A fast horse and a soaring eagle are the wings of a nomad." --Kazakh proverb

Falconry, training raptors to hunt for game, is particularly suited to vast grasslands especially in combination with horses and dogs. The earliest images of falconry appear in Assyrian and Hittite reliefs of the 9th and 8th centuries BC. Classical Greek and Roman authors Ctesias, Aristotle, Pliny, and Aelian described falconry, and in about AD 1270 Marco Polo detailed how the nomads of Central Asia hunted on horseback with small falcons, hawks, and eagles.

FIG 1.1. Kazakh eagle hunter

FIG 1.1. Kazakh eagle hunter (Shutterstock)

The Powerful Golden Eagle

For thousands of years, golden eagles have been the favorite raptor to train as a hunting companion across the northern steppes from the Caucasus to China. Eagles are strong predators especially adapted to winter hunting for hare, marmot, deer, fox, and even lynx and wolf, in snow-covered grasslands and mountain crags. Female eagles, larger, fiercer, and more powerful than males, are preferred. Fledglings or sub-adult eagles are captured and trained to hunt. After about 10 years they are released to the wild to mate and raise young.

Evidence pointing to eagle hunting's antiquity comes from Scythian and other burial mounds of nomads who roamed the steppes 3,000 years ago and whose artifacts abound in eagle imagery. An ancient Scythian nomad skeleton buried with an eagle was reportedly excavated near Aktobe Gorge, Kazakhstan. Ancient petroglyphs in the Altai region depict eagle hunters and inscribed Chinese stone reliefs show eagles perched on the arms of hunters in tunics, trousers, and boots, identified as northern nomads (1st to 2nd century AD). A Song Dynasty (AD 960) painting shows Khitan nomads of Manchuria practicing their ancient eagle hunting arts. Other eagle-hunting groups in the past included Jurchen, Oirat, Torghut, Kyrgyz, Kalmyk, Kirei, Altaian, Siberian, and Caucasus nomads.

FIG 1.3. Central Asian nomad eagle hunters on ancient Chinese stone reliefs

FIG 1.3. Central Asian nomad eagle hunters on ancient Chinese stone reliefs

FIG 1.4. Song Dynasty Khitan eagle hunters, AD 960

FIG 1.4. Song Dynasty Khitan eagle hunters, AD 960 (Public Domain)

Horse, Dog and Eagle

Eagle hunting lore is preserved in ancient poems of Central Asia, such as the Kyrgyz Manas epic, in which the hero's death is mourned by his horse, dog, and eagle. In ancient Caucasus legends about great heroes and heroines ( Nart Sagas ), hunters set forth on fine steeds, hounds trotting along and golden eagles on their arms: “Your horse is ready, your weapons and armor, your hounds and your eagle too.” In eagle hunting, dogs serve as beaters for the eagles.

FIG 1.5. Kazakh eagle hunters, early 1900s

FIG 1.5. Kazakh eagle hunters, early 1900s (Public Domain)

“Our ancestors had three comrades,” goes the old Kazakh saying, “ swift-foot, tazy , and bürkit” (fine horse, Taigan sighthound, and golden eagle). By training these three animals—horse, dog, and eagle—to be companions, the early nomads made the harsh, unforgiving steppes into a land rich with accessible game for furs and food. Today, the ancient arts of bürkitshi ( berkutchi, eagle hunters) are carried on by Kazakh nomads dispersed in Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Xianjiang (northwest China). The tradition is handed down from generation to generation. One must be tough and patient to learn to hunt with such a formidable bird of prey as the golden eagle. There are nuanced, complex distinctions among capturing, domesticating, training, competing, and actually hunting with eagles.

Warrior Women

Male bürkitshi are more common than females today, although eagle hunting has always been open to interested girls. Archaeology suggests that eagle huntresses were probably more common in ancient times. Spectacular archaeological discoveries of graves (ca 700 BC to AD 300) across ancient Scythia, from Ukraine to China, reveals that steppe nomad females engaged in riding and hunting activities and about one third of the women were active warriors in battle.

Unlike settled, patriarchal societies like classical Greece, where women stayed home to weave and mind children, the lives of nomadic steppe tribes centered on horses and archery. Men and women shared the vigorous outdoor life and everyone rode fast horses, shot arrows with deadly accuracy, hunted game, and defended the tribe. The combination of horse riding and archery was the equalizer: a woman on horseback is as fast and agile as a man. This ancient way of life—embracing gender equality—was essential for tribes migrating across oceans of grass, and egalitarian traditions persist in their descendants today.

Comments

The calm resolute and gracefull beauty of people from the ancient steps, far and away belittles modern western society! Strength of family bonds, and desire to thrive in nomadic wilderness is taught to children, strength of the woman as well as the man, and the woman and man honor each other and care for children in deep ways that no other culture -(except first Nations Americans, who are reletives of Kazakhs and Mongolians) can appreciate! All the modern westerner snowflakes, as well as evil backward people in the world take note! The future belongs to these brave traditional people from the open grasses and broad mountains of Asia!

The more I argue with you, I will not! I live here in Kazakhstan, I am a nomad, and I falconer. Excavations of Scythian burial mounds are located 10 km. from my house. If you want to become familiar with the material that come to me for a month and tarry life of nomads, then we will continue the conversation.

Adrienne Mayor's picture

First, my research on the history of eagle falconry is not from the Internet but based on the work of historians of falconry and steppe nomads and the archaeologists of the Tarim Basin mummies. Please see the reference list for Parts 1 and 2 of this article, esp. Central Asian Falconry, the works of T. Soma, and for the archaeology of Tarim mummies, see Elizabeth Barber and Victor Mair.
Second, the Tarim Basin archaeologists Mair and Barber provided the photo and drawing of the female mummy with falconry mitt now in the Urumqi museum. The female mummy eagle hunter is not "the Altai mummy queen" as Qazak says (and she was not Kazakh, but probably Tocharian). Many photos of this female Tarim Basin mummy on the Internet show a reversed image with the mitt on the right hand. In fact, it is on her left hand. Qazak is correct that todays' Kazakh and Kyrgyz eagle hunters wear the gauntlet on the right hand, leaving the left arm free to control the horse. But this style is relatively recent. The handedness practice has evolved since antiquity, as reported by many falconry historians. In ancient times the mitt was usually worn on the left arm, leaving the dominant right arm free for weapons--from the days when steppe nomads were active warriors using swords. For example, Mongols carried the eagle on the left arm. Eagles were also perched on the left arm in antiquity when the hunter was on foot, again leaving the right arm for weapons. Ancient images show both right and left handed perches.
Third, your claims about nomad women's roles in antiquity are based on modern assumptions and do not apply to antiquity, as demonstrated by archaeological and historical evidence. Kurgan graves across ancient Scythia from the Black Sea to the Altai show that nomadic men and women participated in the same physical activities of riding and hunting. The only "herds" in antiquity on the steppes were horses (other herd animlas came later). Archaeological discoveries of the ancient graves of more than 300 women shows that they were buried with the same weapons, armor, and horses as the men (and men were buried with jewelry, needles, mirrors, like the women). For these facts see chapter 4 of "The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World" (Princeton University Press, 2014).

Article largely resembles delirium. The author is not well studied topic, and gathered all the facts on the Internet. One of the facts about the gauntlet from the Altai mummy queen. Glove mummy on the left hand, although the hunters and horsemen in Asia were birds on his right hand. Women nomads mainly sat in the house and could not go hunting or war. While the man was hunting or fighting, the woman had to look after the children and the cattle, collect firewood, to cook, to sew clothes, dress skins. In women, the nomads were not physically possible to do other things. Learn the history and communicate with these nomads, and then you will understand the mentality and history of the nomadic people.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

(1) Knotted tanned hide bundle before extraction of contents; (2) & (4) gold dinars; (3) signet ring with intaglio; (5) contents of knotted tanned hide bundle.
In mid-September, a large treasure was unearthed during a dig at the Abbey of Cluny, in the French department of Saône-et-Loire: 2,200 silver deniers and oboles, 21 Islamic gold dinars, a signet ring, and other objects made of gold. Never before has such a large cache of silver deniers been discovered. Nor have gold coins from Arab lands, silver deniers, and a signet ring ever been found hoarded together within a single, enclosed complex.

Human Origins

Deriv; Ancient Celtic dolmen from Poulnabrone, Ireland and carved Egyptian deity Thoth
When ancient Egypt and Ireland are spoken about in the same breath it usually results in the rolling of eyes, polite exits and the sound of murmurs citing pseudo-history and new age babble. At least...

Ancient Technology

Grinding stone, Dendera Temple, Egypt.
Most people know of the great construction achievements of the dynastic Egyptians such as the pyramids and temples of the Giza Plateau area as well as the Sphinx. Many books and videos show depictions of vast work forces hewing blocks of stone in the hot desert sun and carefully setting them into place.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article