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Rethinking Stereotypes: Were Scythian Warriors Really Nomadic?

Rethinking Stereotypes: Were Scythian Warriors Really Nomadic?


The diets of ancient steppe Scythians, classically known as nomads, has revealed that while some of the population did indeed travel far and wide warring for new lands on horseback, many didn’t, and most settled where they were born.

Most Scythians Preferred Farms and Fires Over Swords

Scythians emerged from the Pontic steppe (southern Siberia) around 700 to 200 BC and dominated all territories between the Black Sea and China. In the 5th century BC, Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the Scythians descended from the child of Heracles and a hybrid snake-woman. Since then they have been perceived as nomadic horse-riding warriors. Now, a new paper by Professor Alicia R. Vetresca Miller of the University of Michigan, published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggests that Scythian people led more complex and settled lives than is commonly assumed.

The new study set out to reveal secrets pertaining to the “diet and mobility” of Scythian populations. This lead the team of researchers to undertake complex isotopic analysis of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and strontium from human teeth and bones recovered from Scythian burial sites in Ukraine. The results of the study directly challenge the commonly held stereotype that the Scythians were horse-riding long-distance nomadic warriors, claiming that most “did not travel long distances during their lifetimes.”

Map showing location of Scythian remains in Ukraine and surrounding areas under analysis in this study. (Miller et. al / PLOS ONE)

Map showing location of Scythian remains in Ukraine and surrounding areas under analysis in this study. (Miller et. al / PLOS ONE)

Breaking with False Historical Narratives

As with so many aspects of life, when the facts of any given scenario or situation are laid out in the clear light of day they often challenge our general perceptions of that thing. This is made evident in the rom-com movie industry which portraits Christmas in the U.S.A like some international fiasco where the entire nation is loaded into airports trying to get “home” for the big day. Well, that’s all just a load of guff according to a 2015 New York Times article entitled The Typical American Lives Only 18 Miles From Mom that explains how the vast majority of Americans don’t live further than 20 miles from their parents homes.

This is exactly the case for ancient Scythian populations. While it was believed ipso facto that Scythians were a greatly nomadic warrior culture, after a little bit of digging it’s become clear that Scythians were a much more culturally diverse group. The new paper explains that in most cases Scythians led “sedentary lives with a dependence on agriculture.”

The authors of the study say their new findings will help archaeologists formulate a more complete idea of Scythian history now that it is known most people “did not” travel long distances. Furthermore, the researchers demonstrate in the new paper how dietary items prove that the majority “remained local to their settlements, farming millet and raising livestock in mixed economic systems.”

Up until now, academia has held on to the stereotype that Scythians were nomadic warriors. This new study turns that belief on its head. (Public domain)

Up until now, academia has held on to the stereotype that Scythians were nomadic warriors. This new study turns that belief on its head. (Public domain)

Challenging the Classic Nomadic Warrior

Based on teeth and bone remains at Scythian burial sites, this new finding is not like Mike Tyson being caught in a pink dress. The fact that a culture who were traditionally interpreted as “warriors” should more accurately be described as farmers, doesn’t mean they were any less fierce. They were a hard people. Don’t for a second think that the agricultural lifestyle was any less challenging than the fighting culture in the ancient world. Working every day and night, often without rest for weeks at a time, Scythian farmers fought enemies on several fronts.

Rival clans would attack each others farmsteads at night, while the effects of flash floods took constant back-breaking work to overcome. Keep in mind that, as anyone out there with green fingers knows, extremely wet conditions are fertile breeding grounds for the diabolical Botrytis cinerea. This necrotrophic fungus affects many plant species and it is most commonly known as grey mold. One patch of this microbial killer left unseen could destroy an entire field system in less than a week, leaving families huddled together in crofts starving, dying one by one, wishing they has chosen the way of the sword and not the hoe.

Top image: New study analyses the ancient diet of Scythians using their human remains, to conclude that in actual fact most Scythians lived a sedentary agricultural lifestyle. Source: nidvoray / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie



Practicalities mattered in the Iron Age. I remember a documentary presentation of the first excavation of an upright British chariot burial complete with standing horses.

The ponies were said to have jumped into the grave pit prior to slaughter. Surely, a ramp of timber or earth would have been easier, for the chariot had to go in too, quite possibly in tow? Whichever, horizontal poles would have been needed to support the equine bodies until the earth filled up around them.

If the Scythians did not farm at any stage, only plundered, they would have needed lots of weaker neighbours to support them. With women and children in tow, practicalities get in the way.

It is likely that a Scythian who never farmed was like a Celt buried with a chariot - the exception rather than the norm.

Ok, so the only evidence this article presents that the ancient Scythians were more sedentary than we thought were only hints/suggestions that they ate millet & maybe other settled agricultral grains. If there was settled side to these people there would be evidence of permanent settlements along with the grave mounds we the Scythians left behind. If they ate foods that only  a settled people cultivated they could've of been aquired either via trade or extortion from neighboring settled people.  Or they could've  conquered  the settled people who had already lived in the territory that the Scythians would invade & dominate.  Now I can only speculate how this mixed society would work if such a society actually existed; more evidence is needed.

Bruce Nowakowski's picture

the Scythians were centered around the Pontic steppe.  The Proto Indo-European language is said to have been centered in the Russian (Pontic Steppe). the Greek legends also say the Centaur teacher of heroes Chryon was located in the land of the Scythians.  I think its safe to assume they were more than just nomads at some point.   Remember the Rome Napoleon encountered was nowhere near as advanced as that of the Caesars. All cultures have a rise, an apex and a fall. 

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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