Surprising Truths about the Legendary Scythians Revealed
New research into the lifestyle of the Scythians, the nomadic culture that reigned supreme on the steppes of Central Asia in the first millennium BC, is questioning the long-held historic narratives about these ancient peoples. Rather than the traditional image of Scythians as terrifyingly fierce nomadic warriors, this research of burial remains in multiple locations is painting a picture of a cooperative people with a far more settled agricultural lifestyle than previously believed.
Burial remains from the Eleke Sazy necropolis in eastern Kazakhstan. (Zainolla Samashev / PHYS)
Panting a New Picture of the Scythians
Two recent studies have shed new light on the history and lifestyles of the Scythians, who during their heyday, from approximately 700 BC to 200 BC, were unquestionably the dominant people in the region. Most of their population lived on the 384,000 square-mile (994,000 square-kilometer) Pontic-Caspian steppe, which covered an area that ran from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.
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Stories passed down through history portrayed the Scythians as fierce warriors who terrorized and intimidated their neighbors while sweeping across the landscape on horseback, wielding superior weapons and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. But the latest research suggests the truth was far more complex. It seems that the relationships between the Scythians and other cultures in the region were far more interactive and cooperative than previously believed. Furthermore, the Scythians’ reputation as a strictly nomadic people is only partially accurate, and hides a more complicated reality that saw some Scythian groups adopting a settled agricultural lifestyle.
Scientists are using burial remains to rewrite the history of the ancient Scythians. Source: avtk / Adobe Stock
Scythian Nomadism and Agricultural Practices
In an article published in the journal PLOS One, a team of researchers led by anthropologist Alicia Ventresca Miller performed an isotopic analysis of the bones and teeth of 56 individuals who were unearthed at three Scythian burial sites in central and eastern Ukraine. Isotopes of substances like strontium, nitrogen, and oxygen are absorbed by humans from the plants and animals they eat, and traces of those isotopes will then be preserved wherever calcium deposits might be found in the body.
By studying isotope ratios and calculating decay rates, it is possible to make determinations about a person’s diet, about where they lived, and even about the nomadic or settled nature of their lifestyle. What this new study revealed is that the Scythians were not as universally mobile as was previously believed. While two of the 56 individuals studied showed isotope ratios consistent with a nomadic existence, the rest had apparently lived as agriculturalists who raised livestock and who grew and consumed millet.
Rather than terrorizing their neighbors, it would seem the majority of the Scythians who resided in what is now Ukraine lived beside them peacefully. "Our study demonstrates overall low levels of human mobility in the vicinity of key urban locales of the Scythian era, in contrast to previous stereotypes of highly nomadic populations," Ventresca Miller explains in ScienceAlert. "While long-distance mobility increased during the Scythian era relative to preceding periods, it was limited to a small percentage of individuals."
"The Scythian epoch was clearly a period of contradictions, with strong evidence for complex interactions between agro-pastoralists and pastoralists that contributed to population aggregation in urban locales," observes Miller in Michigan News. These findings will inevitably cause a revision in the academic consensus on how the legendary Scythians actually lived, as will another study published in Science Daily carried out by scientists associated with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.
In this map of the Ukraine and its surroundings, the remains discovered and under analysis have been marked. (Miller et. al / PLOS ONE )
The Genetic Complexity of the Complex Scythians
In this research project, discussed in the journal Science Advances, a large team of geneticists, archaeologists, and anthropologists pulled genetic material from recovered specimens of 111 individuals who lived in Central Asia in the first millennium BC and a few centuries beyond. They were able to identify some of the remains as belonging to Scythians, based on the burial practices that were characteristic of this culture.
Intricate charting of the genetic material revealed that Scythian nomads had first entered the steppes of Asia during the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age (approximately 1,000 BC to 700 BC) from two locations: from the Kazakh Steppe and the Ural Mountains, or from the south and east and north and east respectively. Scythians who’d come from the Kazakh region had freely intermixed (from a genetic perspective) with the local population, which consisted of Bronze Age herding people who had been living in the region for centuries.
This genetic admixture showed that these Scythians had established what must have been amicable relations with many of the other cultures they encountered. The Scythian cultures that dominated the region in the mid-first century BC were descended from both the original Scythian migrants and from the Bronze Age societies that had occupied the Pontic-Caspian area for a far longer period. The Scythians faded into obscurity and largely disappeared from the steppes of Asia in the second century BC. Notably, the same genetic analysis that found evidence of significant genetic mixing at the time of the Scythian’s arrival also uncovered proof of increasing genetic mixing at the time of their disappearance.
Rather than going extinct through warfare, it seems the Scythians were largely absorbed and assimilated by surrounding populations. As their political power faded, they abandoned nomadism and settled into an agricultural/farming lifestyle, slowly losing their distinct identity. Clearly, the Scythians were not just conquerors who maintained a separate identity and forced their will on their neighbors. They entered into mutually beneficial relationships with at least some of the cultures they encountered, and those contacts undoubtedly influenced the Scythian societies that remained nomadic and as well as those that adopted agriculture as their means of survival.
Map showing the locations of the 39 archaeological sites where the 117 individuals were retrieved in the research published in ScienceAdvances and whose genome-wide data was analyzed and led to the conclusion that the Scythians must have had amicable relations with the cultures they encountered. (Gnecchi-Ruscone et. al. / CC BY-NC 4.0)
Using Archaeological Science to Correct the Historical Record
Historical depictions can be tainted by distorted perceptions, both in the past and in the present. Inaccurate ideas about cultures and societies may be driven by opposing agendas (military or political rivals will not be kind to their enemies), cultural prejudice (the unfortunate tendency of people in the past to label migrating groups as barbarians), too much reliance on unreliable sources (in this case, the Greek historian Herodotus, whose ideas about Scythian origins seems to have been based on rumor and legend), or by leaping to conclusions based on limited information (past archaeological finds related to the Scythians suggested they were more universally warlike and nomadic than was actually the case).
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As the science behind archaeology and historical analysis continues to advance, it will be easier for researchers to correct such errors, or view real discoveries in a more nuanced context. Genetic and biological explorations that rely on the most up-to-date technology can add scientifically precise details to partially formed pictures, filling in the blanks while providing evidence that support some theories better than others. It seems past ideas about who the Scythians were and how they lived may have taken on the nature of a cliché or a caricature.
"It is clear that if we are to truly uncover the Scythians we need to accept that the Eurasian steppe was home to a myriad of dynamic cultures and subsistence strategies during the Iron Age," the researchers behind the isotopic study wrote, reaching a revised conclusion based on their eye-opening discoveries. The lack of a written record from the Scythians themselves still limits archaeology’s ability to understand exactly who they were. But these new DNA and isotopic studies have helped lift the veil on the lives and lifestyles of a people whose history, behavior, and identity were likely diverse and complex, and in many ways similar to modern pluralistic societies.
Top image: Scythian belt buckle (CC by SA 3.0)
By Nathan Falde