The Eagle Huntress: Ancient Traditions, and Evidence for Women as Eagle Hunters – Part I
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 (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.
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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 1.4. 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 (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.
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.
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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.