Agile, independent, self-sufficient... only taking fights on their own terms, and only when the odds favor them.. refusing to play their opponents games or fall into their traps. Unassailable, yet powerfully capable of assailing enemies. Profoundly competent, yet understated and unpretentious. Just, honest, genuine, courageous and magnanimous, yet capable of being ruthless when the situation warranted. To my mind, these are the hallmarks of the 'True Scythian', that most ancient root of the Indo-European people that proceeded to branch out across the known world and subsequently become known as an endless variety of peoples and nations over time. I've purposefully used the oldest and most broad definition of 'Scythian' throughout this video, that mentioned at 4:00, lumping many of their obvious direct outgrowths into the umbrella term. The more I dig, the more the dividing lines between peoples fall away, and the more its possible to understand the central spoke of the wheel of the 'PIE' (Proto-Indo-European) people, and the 'True' Scythians are very representative of this seed from which so much would later grow. Think of history in the manner of waves radiating outwards (and back inwards) from a central point around the black sea, and firm caste structures developed in its wake, and history immediately begins to make a great deal more sense. There's still a great deal I'm not saying, and haven't yet touched upon, especially with regards to Scythian 'origins', and I hope you'll all be a bit patient in this regard. As I mentioned before, picture this series as an attempt at a spiral towards truth, each rotation drawing a bit nearer, the totality of context a bit clearer, and further building the contextual puzzle. Apologies for not giving details to support each minor point. I'm trying to cover such a broad swathe of time and events that these videos would be 10+ hours long were I to delve into the specifics and supporting evidence, but I try to only to give voice to what I can be relatively certain is true. (It'll add a bit of time/effort to the equation, but in the future I think I'll cite lists of sources used) Many others do the piecemeal analysis of details and specifics, I'm taking this path because I feel there's both a need and appetite for it, but I strongly encourage others to do their own research... and in fact this is probably the foremost goal of my creating these videos. I *very* much want to launch other intensive research journeys. Asha Logos , you tube channel, donate and subscribe.
Introducing the Scythians
We’re assuming you probably don't know very much about the Scythians. But that's OK! Ahead of our major exhibition opening in September 2017 we’ve compiled a handy beginner’s guide to these nomadic warriors, who galloped into the pages of history…Artist's impression of a Scythian and his horse. Reconstruction by D V Pozdnjakov.British Museum 30 May 2017
The Scythians (pronounced ‘SIH-thee-uns’) were a group of ancient tribes of nomadic warriors who originally lived in what is now southern Siberia. Their culture flourished from around 900 BC to around 200 BC, by which time they had extended their influence all over Central Asia – from China to the northern Black Sea.
From September 2017 you can discover these fearsome warriors and their culture in a special exhibition at the British Museum. But before that, swot up on some key facts and impress your friends down the pub with your new-found Scythian knowledge.
1. They were formidable warriors
Gold plaque of a mounted Scythian. Black Sea region, c. 400–350 BC. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
Until the 1700s, a lot of what we knew about the Scythians was cobbled together from a range of ancient sources – none of them written by the Scythians themselves as they didn’t ‘do’ writing. So what we had was a collection of accounts written by Greeks, Assyrians and Persians – and they were usually terrified (although often also impressed).
The Greek historian Herodotus, in his Histories (Book 4, 5th century BC), wrote: ‘None who attacks them can escape, and none can catch them if they desire not to be found.’ Assyrian inscriptions from the 7th century BC also refer to fighting Scythians, with one mentioning a peace treaty secured by marrying off an Assyrian princess to a Scythian king.
When the Scythians weren’t being hide and seek champions, or being fobbed off with foreign princesses, they even developed a powerful new type of bow which was made from different layers of wood and sinew. It was much more powerful than a regular wooden bow, as the different layers increased the forces and energy when the string was released.
Gold sew-on clothing appliqué in the form of two Scythian archers.
In battles, the Scythians would use large numbers of highly mobile archers who could shower hundreds of deadly arrows within a few minutes. As late as the 6th century AD a Byzantine writer described the deadly effect of mounted archers like these: ‘they do not let up at all until they have achieved the complete destruction of their enemies.’ If this were not terrifying enough, several classical writers state that the Scythians dipped their arrows in poison!
Scythian arrow heads. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
When the Scythians fought on foot, their weapon of choice was a battle-axe with a long narrow pointed blade (like a narrow pick-axe). This type of fighting was personal and face to face – the weapons’ tell-tale puncture marks have been found on the heads of excavated human remains.
So all in all, pretty fearsome.
2. They were nomads
Scythians with horses under a tree. Gold belt plaque. Siberia, 4th–3rd century BC. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
The brilliantly named ‘pseudo-Hippocrates’ wrote that: ‘The Scyths… have no houses but live in wagons. These are very small with four wheels. Others with six wheels are covered with felt; such wagons are employed like houses, in twos or threes and provide shelter from rain and wind … The women and children live in these wagons, but the men always remain on horseback.’
Nomadic peoples tended not to leave a lot behind in terms of cities or literature – what used to be called ‘civilisation’. What we know of the Scythians is largely through excavations of burial mounds (kurgans), and examples of rock art. It is from these remains that we have the archaeological evidence to see if the ancient writers like Herodotus were right – or if they were making it up as they went along.
In fact, our old friend Herodotus thought that the fact they were nomads meant they were extra scary:
‘For when men have no stablished cities or fortresses, but all are house-bearers and mounted archers, living not by tilling the soil but by cattle-rearing and carrying their dwellings on wagons, how should these not be invincible and unapproachable?’ (Histories, Book 4)
Being nomadic, of course, meant having portable possessions that were robust. The objects the Scythians buried with their dead are generally small or lightweight – such as small drinking flasks and wooden bowls. There is no furniture to speak of – the few surviving tables are low and come apart. Thick floor coverings were essential though – sheepskins, felt rugs and even an imported pile carpet have all been found in tombs.
3. They loved their horses
Artist’s impression of a Scythian on a horse. Reconstruction by D V Pozdnjakov.
Siberia is vast. It stretches over eight time zones and borders Europe, China, the Pacific Ocean and Arctic Circle. It is made up of three major ecological zones – icy tundra at the north, dense forest in the central part, and mixed woodland and grassy steppe in the south. This last section forms a wide grassy corridor of rich grazing from Mongolia and China to the Black Sea. It is here that the Scythians began to develop more efficient ways of riding horses which meant they could move bigger herds to new grazing grounds over larger distances.
The Scythians developed horse breeding and riding to a new level. They were accomplished riders and did not use spiked bits or muzzles. Scythian horse gear (saddles, bridles, bits etc) was also highly developed and functional, durable and light. We know this because the large burial mounds contain large numbers of sacrificed horses. These were accompanied by halters, bridles and saddles, and occasionally whips, pouches and shields.
The saddle horses were buried with very elaborate costumes including headgear with griffins or antlers, saddle covers decorated with combat scenes, and long dangling pendants.
Horse headgear. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
Scythian horses were well looked after – many were aged between 15 and 20 years when they were put to the grave. Almost all the buried horses were killed in the same manner – a hard blow of a pointed battle-axe to the mid-forehead. Although this is regarded today as a ‘humane’ method, within a society which prized horses, the killing of horses must have made a deep impression.
4. They liked getting drunk and high!
Gold plaques showing Scythians drinking. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
Like many cultures, the Scythians drank to excess and got high. Feasting was an important part of Scythian funeral ceremonies – it was also important for social bonding between individuals and tribes. Originally known as ‘milk drinkers’, the Scythians adopted wine consumption from Greeks and Persians. They soon acquired a reputation for excessive drinking of undiluted wine (the Greeks used to mix their wine with water). Greek authors then commented on how the Scythians, like the Persians, liked to drink to excess. You can lead a horse(man) to water (but he’d prefer wine, apparently).
Herodotus also describes how the Scythians had a ritual which involved getting high on hemp in a kind of mobile ‘weed sauna’:
‘They anoint and wash their heads; as for their bodies, they set up three poles leaning together to a point and cover these over with woollen mats; then, in the place so enclosed to the best of their power, they make a pit in the centre beneath the poles and the mats and throw red-hot stones into it… The Scythians then take the seed of this hemp and, creeping under the mats, they throw it on the red-hot stones; and, being so thrown, it smoulders and sends forth so much steam that no Greek vapour-bath could surpass it. The Scythians howl in their joy at the vapour-bath. This serves them instead of bathing, for they never wash their bodies with water.’ (Histories, Book 4)
The Scythians realised the pain relieving effects of marijuana, which no doubt came in useful if they had been in a riding accident or a fierce battle.
5. They were tattooed
Fragment of mummified skin showing a Scythian tattoo. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
All the frozen Scythian bodies examined so far from different sites are heavily tattooed. The designs covered the arms, legs and upper torsos. They include fantastic animals locked in combat, rows of birds and simple dots resembling modern acupuncture.
Line drawings of tattoos on a Scythian man.
Other than tattoos, what did the Scythians look like? Some of the women have fair hair and blue eyes but the men are strongly built and have red or dark hair.
6. They liked a bit of bling
Gold torc with turquoise inlays. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
Scythian craftsmen were good at casting metal. They worked gold, bronze and iron, using a combination of techniques like casting, forging and inlaying with other materials. None of these required large amounts of equipment and Siberia is rich in metal ores, but it did require skill. There will be many exquisite examples of Scythian metalwork in the exhibition.
7. They mummified their dead
Artist’s impression of a burial mound. Watercolour illustration, 18th century. Archive of the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg.
In the high Altai mountain region near the borders of Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia, the frozen subsoil has meant that the organic remains of Scythians buried in tombs have been exceptionally well preserved in permafrost.
The Scythians took great effort to preserve the appearance of the dead using a form of mummification. They removed the brain matter through holes cut in the head, sliced the bodies and removed as much soft tissue as possible before replacing both with dry grass and sewing up the skin.
Wooden coffin. Late 4th–early 3rd century BC. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.
As already noted, nomads do not leave many traces, but when the Scythians buried their dead they took care to equip the corpse with the essentials they thought they needed for the perpetual rides of the afterlife. They usually dug a deep hole and built a wooden structure at the bottom. For important people these resembled log cabins that were lined and floored with dark felt – the roofs were covered with layers of larch, birch bark and moss. Within the tomb chamber, the body was placed in a log trunk coffin, accompanied by some of their prized possessions and other objects. Outside the tomb chamber but still inside the grave shaft, they placed slaughtered horses, facing east.
With the advances of aDNA, we have now begun to tackle questions, such as the origin of the “Scythian peoples”. This was first seen with Unterlander et al (2017), and more were included into Damgaard et al (2018). With the help of Allentoft et al (2015), Mathieson et al. (2018), Narasimhan et al. (2018), along the two previously mentioned papers, I will check the question of origin for the early Iranian nomads.
Bagley (n.d.), attempted to summarize the work on the early Zhou period and their interaction with Siberian Bronze Age center. This was based on work by Loeuwe & Shaugnessy (1999). This highlights interesting aspects of the trade between these two groups, with artifacts related to the Karasuk culture spreading to not only China, but also towards Europe (Bagley, n.d.). While their early dating of a movement (Chernyk, 2008), does not really match the genetic view to this point, there are later samples which hint in this direction.
Since the time of Herodotus, many have had their own ideas on the origins of the Scythians. Mallory (1989) noted that some thought that the origin lie in the west, in the region north of the Black Sea. Others, saw the Scythians, and Iranians in general, as originating in Central Asia, and even Siberia. Some have even thought that a multi-regional origin was more likely, with changes being cultural, rather than demographic.
Davis-Kimball (2005), was one that saw the Scythians as a group that was multi-ethnic, rather than group with a single origin, or denoting a single group of people. Sometimes, anything west of Inner Mongolia and China was referred to as Scythian, but Scythian would also sometimes be restricted to those in the Western and Central Steppes (Di Cosimo, 1999).
The first way to go at this, I feel, is to look at Karasuk. A culture that Mallory (1997), described as very mobile, compared to Andronovo, that is known more by their kurgan burials than their settlements. Karasuk is also seen as being highly influential and starting the animal art so common among the “Scythian” people (Keyser et al, 2009). Mallory (1997) even mentions the potential of the Karasuk to have a specific “proto-Iranian” identity. The influence of the Yenesei, and Slab Grave people cannot be underplayed (Mallory, 1997). Okunevo is thought to be a mix of Afanasievo and local Yeneseian groups (Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 1979), in an area later within the Andronovo sphere, and this mixing may likely be the formation of the Karasuk culture within the Minusinsk Basin. Okunevo is thought to be the group that introduced realistic animal art to these later steppe pastoralists as well.
First of all, I wanted to take a look at the Karasuk cluster that is closer to the Andronovo samples in PCA. To understand the make-up of Karasuk, I first used qpAdm to find a valid model of their origin. With qpAdm, the set of right populations, or outgroups chosen included Mbuti_DG, Ust_Ishim, Kostenki14, EHG, Villabruna, Ganj_Dareh_N, Anatolia_N, Steppe_EMBA, Karitiana, and the Ami.
The most successful model of the Karasuk culture needed excess Han-related ancestry, in addition to the ENA found in the Okunevo samples. Best exemplified with the Shamanka_BA run.
Chi-squareTail-probAndronovoOkunevoHan17.8660.02225430.7210.279NAstd error0.020.02NAChi-squareTail-probAndronovoOkunevoHan9.6130.2115840.7660.1780.056std error0.0260.040.019Chi-squareTail-probAndronovoShamanka_BA5.10.7468450.8140.186std error0.0160.016
Looking at the Deeper Ancestry of the Karasuk Culture, I tried to make them a mix of Sintashta, Afanasievo, and an ENA group from the Baikal area, Shamanka_EN. This made sense as to making a mixture of a Siberian hunter, Bronze Age steppe pastoralists, and also Middle to Late Bronze Age groups in Central Asia. While the standard errors are a little high, it is clear that the dominant ancestry in Karasuk is Sintashta-related.
After adding Steppe_MLBA, Germany_MN, and West_Siberia_N to the pright outgroups:
Interstingly, the Karasuk is also seen to have expanded, if not influenced all the way towards the Black Sea, and at least the Aral Sea (((((((((Trying to relocate citation!!!!!!))))))))
Other samples, dating to about the same time, North of the Aral sea are seen in Mezhovskaya. Even more interesting, is that samples are near genetic dittos to the Karasuk samples. Could Mezhovskaya be part of the western Karasuk group that creates the great cultural uniformity among earlier Iranian nomads through the Scythian period? Potentially, yes.
Chi-squareTail-probAndronovoOkunevoHan12.2480.1404920.7410.259NAstd error0.0280.028NAChi-squareTail-probAndronovoOkunevoHan6.0360.5355550.7840.1510.064std error0.0320.0510.025Chi-squareTail-probAndronovoShamanka_BA5.3180.7230870.8460.154std error..0220.022
With Chechushkov et al (2018), we see that horse-riding in battle may have begun in Central Asia between 1500-1200 BCE. Which is, of course, during the highly mobile Karasuk period and within the range of these groups.
Mezhovskaya can essentially be modeled as 100% Karasuk with qpAdm, as any additional ancestry is within the standard error of that component.
The next question then is, is Karasuk, and possibly by extension Mezhovskaya, the homeland and ancestors of the Scythians? Are they also ancestral to the western Scythians, as far as Hungary?
The first Scythian group I looked at was the Tagar Culture, which followed the Karasuk in the Minusinsk Basin. The Karasuk is indeed very important here for the Tagar. Even the Karasuk+Karasuk outlier combo works here. What’s even more interesting about the Tagar culture, is the great similarity between their art and that of the European Scythians (Keyser et al, 2009; Encyclopaedia Britannica, n.d.).
Chi-squareTail-probKarsukOkunevo5.2910.7261040.9330.067std error0.0370.037Chi-squareTail-probKarasukShamanka_BA7.2010.5151330.9670.033std error0.0210.021
The Pazyryk Culture is another well-known group of Scythians, that include the famous tattooed mummy. Their culture is seen as having been very warlike (Citation)))))))))))))
They also require a lot of Karasuk ancestry and also groups that are from nearby, or closely related groups to these samples.
Chi-squareTail-probKarsukOkunevoHan16.0370.02478220.3130.340.347std error0.0360.050.023Chi-squareTail-probKarasukShamankaBAHan1.7610.9718760.430.430.14std error0.0280.080.061
Chi-squareTail-probKarasukOkunevo116.8991.45E-210.410.59std error0.0890.089Chi-squareTail-probKarasukBMACHan6.0750.5310470.5680.0990.333std error0.0450.0420.019
Chi-squareTail-probKarasukOkunevoBMACHan10.6280.100590.5740.1340.210.082std error0.060.0470.0230.018Chi-squareTail-probKarasukShamankaBABMAC10.7030.1521080.6180.1730.209std error0.040.0170.033
The Tian-Shan Saka graph here did get a little over-complicated for my taste, but with such a complex mixture it might be bound to happen.
Chi-squareTail-probKarasukOkunevoHanBMAC6.786.3410950.4290.2840.1800.107std error0.060.0510.020.034Chi-squareTail-probKarasukShamanka_BABMAC2.488.9279770.5260.3720.102std error0.0440.0190.036
Chi-squareTail-probKarasukArmenia_EBA20.1940.009626380.9230.077std error0.0480.048Chi-squareTail-probKarasukBMAC15.1040.05714880.8630.137std error0.0420.042Chi-squareTail-probKarasukBMACWest_Siberia9.9360.1922230.7690.1660.065std error0.0670.0450.037Chi-squareTail-probKarasukBMACBotai8.2610.3101250.6740.2360.089std error0.1080.0680.056Chi-squareTail-probMezhovskayaBMAC12.7650.1201820.9130.087std error0.050.05Chi-squareTail-probTagarBMAC17.4930.02536360.8410.159std error0.0420.042
Chi-squareTail-probKarasukHungary_BA13.6240.09210810.3550.645std error0.0350.035Chi-squareTail-probKarasukBalkan_BA13.990.08203680.2470.753std error0.0370.037Chi-squareTail-probScythian_SamaraHungary_BA18.5140.01768360.3140.686std error0.0290.029Chi-squareTail-probMezhovskayaHungary_BA16.2580.03883190.3390.661std error0.0430.043
Allentoft et al., Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia, Nature 522, 167–172 (11 June 2015) doi:10.1038/nature14507
Bagley, R. Shang Archaeology; The Northern Zone. (1999) http://s155239215.onlinehome.us/turkic/btn_Archeology/Zhou/CambridgeZhouChouArcheologyNorthEn.htm
“Central Asian arts: Neolithic and Metal Age cultures”. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica
Chechushkov et al., Early horse bridle with cheekpieces as a marker of social change: An experimental and statistical study, Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 97, September 2018, Pages 125-136, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2018.07.012
Chernykh, The Formation of the Eurasian “Steppe Belt” of Stockbreeding Cultures. http://www.academia.edu/22557016/FORMATION_OF_THE_EURASIAN_STEPPE_BELT_OF_STOCKBREEDING_CULTURES.BY_E.N._Chernykh
Di Cosimo, Nicola, “The Northern Frontier in Pre-Imperial China (1,500 – 221 BC)”, in: M. Loeuwe, E.L. Shaughnessy, eds, The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221BC, 1999, Cambridge University Press 1999, ISBN 9780521470308
Keyser, Christine; Bouakaze, Caroline; Crubézy, Eric; Nikolaev, Valery G.; Montagnon, Daniel; Reis, Tatiana; Ludes, Bertrand (May 16, 2009). “Ancient DNA provides new insights into the history of south Siberian Kurgan people”. Human Genetics. Springer-Verlag.
Mallory, J. P. (1997). Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 1884964982.
“Okunev Culture”. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. 1979
Unterländer et al., Ancestry and demography and descendants of Iron Age nomads of the Eurasian Steppe, Nature Communications 8, Article number: 14615 (2017), doi:10.1038/ncomms14615
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