‘Nomadic Warrior People of Scythia’ Is a Myth, Archaeologists Discover

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The usual view of Scythians: Heroism of a Scythian by Joseph-François Ducq, circa 1809
The usual view of Scythians: Heroism of a Scythian by Joseph-François Ducq, circa 1809Credit: Christie's
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

The Scythians came roaring out of southern Siberia and came to dominate vast tracts of land from the Black Sea to China, according to the conventional wisdom. The nomadic warriors of Scythia lived on horseback, their fierceness documented by others, if only because they didn’t write.

One who could write was the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century B.C.E. and described the nomadic Scythians at length, explaining among other things that they descended from the fruit of Heracles having intercourse with a half-woman, half-snake: The Scythians arose from the best of their three sons, young Scythes. “None who attacks them can escape, and none can catch them if they desire not to be found,” Herodotus explained of the Scythians, who dominated the central Asia steppes from approximately about 2,700 to 2,200 years ago.

As a historical source Herodotus had his failings, amply demonstrated by his origin story of this enigmatic people. The popular narrative of the Scythians who scorned hearth and home and were fundamentally nomadic fighting people, including on the purported basis that no settlements have been found, was challenged by a new paper published Wednesday by Prof. Alicia Ventresca Miller of the University of Michigan and colleagues in PLOS ONE.

Isotope analysis of Scythian remains, which can indicate dietary habits and geographic mobility, found oddly high signals of millet, some other grains and generally low levels of mobility. They may have invented an advanced, deadlier bow and arrow, as the British Museum explains – but not only have Scythian settlements been found, some were big enough to be considered urban or proto-urban, Ventresca Miller tells Haaretz.

In other words, Scythian society featured settlement and agriculture, and was more complex than the popular narrative would have it, the team says.

Before addressing the isotopes in Scythian remains unearthed in the Ukraine specifically, and what they tell us, who were the Scythians?

Archaeological complex "Naples Scythian", Simferopol, CrimeaCredit: Oleksandr Mykhaylyk

“People talk about them as a big empire. Others call it just a culture group, but they were totally separate groups at the regional level,” Ventresca Miller explains. “These groups shared a set of motifs or symbols that have to do with animal art. There are very clear themes in this animal-style art spread across a very large region. People have, in my opinion, misconstrued that as a political entity.”

These groups created a vast expanse of trade and exchange, also coming into contact it seems with the ancient Greeks.

“But looking into differences, we find regional differences not only between the motifs but also genetically between these groups of people,” she says. In archaeology, similarities are easy to see in art and motifs, but deeper examination of these groups finds regional differences, she explains: “The way people live, the settlements they live in, the way they bury their dead, is distinct. That’s more indicative of an archaeological culture than just a set of motifs, which could be the spread of ideas from other people or trading, group to group to group.”

Not roaring out of Ukraine

Ventresca Miller’s research focuses on the Scythian groups in Ukraine – the forest steppe in the north and grassland steppe in the south – and says they do think they are likely the Scythian people discussed in historical texts. Considering where he lived, Herodotus, for example, could plausibly have had interactions or visited with people who were in southern Ukraine. He was known to have traveled to the Black Sea area, where the ancient Greeks set up trading settlements.

“In Ukraine, there were huge Scythian settlements, urban or proto-urban with surrounding walls. It’s very clear we have big populations living at these places,” she says. Asked about the determination that the settlements were Scythian, she notes: “They were in the right epoch; they have the right cultural motifs to be Scythian; and burial mounds that are Scythian-like.”

Scythian artCredit: Derzsi Elekes Andor
The rough map of the Scythian cultural influenceCredit: Dbachmann

“Having neither cities nor forts, and carrying their dwellings with them wherever they go: accustomed, moreover, one and all of them, to shoot from horseback: and living not by husbandry but on their cattle, their wagons the only houses that they possess, how can they fail of being unconquerable, and unassailable even?” Herodotus,  Book IV, “History of the Persian Wars”

But Herodotus also wrote about Scythian farmers and Scythian pastoralists, Ventresca Miller points out. Yet influenced by the romantic if bloody image, some scholars wrote books about Scythian nomad warriors and the Scythian empire – but that was just wrong, she says.

What, no nomad warriors? “I do think we have some individuals who were moving long distances, but it’s a small part of the population,” Ventresca Miller explains. “It’s not that there weren’t probably warriors or some highly mobile people, but it was a much smaller proportion than we expected. Even I expected the proportion to be higher.”

One wonders why Herodotus, who may have actually met some Scythians when he visited the Black Sea area, was so in awe of them. Ventresca Miller suggests that he was a creature of his time; we only get his perspective, in a fantastical form. Some of what he wrote was real, some was evidently based on hearsay and some was nonsense, such as his monsters.

“He’s part history, part sci-fi. But it’s hard to say the Scythians were marauding. Likely the Greeks colonizing in the area have clashed with them – that would have been a typical cultural contact, maybe just the Scythians fighting back. Cultural contact is a real thing and conflict is real,” she says.

Riding into the sunset, or eating millet at home

Apropos reality, the new study sheds light on the real life of the Scythians. The authors explain that they measured isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in bone, as well as oxygen, carbon and strontium in teeth, from Scythian-era burial sites in Ukraine, for indications of diet and mobility. In some places there was a varied diet, including numerous domesticated crops – chiefly, millet, plus some wheat and barley.

Millet is believed to have been domesticated in Neolithic China, about 10,000 years ago, and to have spread across Asia into Europe.

The view from Athens: Scythian warrior decorating an alabastron vase, 490-480 BCECredit: Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Com

“We don’t really know much about how the Scythians were farming. But we know they were likely farming because their diet had enough millet to make it unlikely that it was transported from somewhere else,” Ventresca Miller explains.

That they were farming is not – despite the prevalent narrative of the nomadic Scythian warriors – surprising, she says. But even she was surprised at how much millet they ate. “I thought we’d find they were agropastoralists: lots of livestock like sheep and goats and cattle, and then probably some grains as well, but the amount of millet for some individuals was surprising.”

The isotope analysis also indicated that most Scythian individuals were sticking around their local settlements, not moving far, she says, adding, “Of those who moved, it was a small proportion – I was surprised by that small proportion.”

They might have assumed that the Scythians in southern Ukraine would farm more and the northern forest steppes people would have more livestock, but their analysis showed a lot of dietary diversity at every site: eating animals, and a lot of millet.

Anyway, not everybody in antiquity was in thrall to them. Euripides, another Greek author from the fifth century B.C.E., wrote in the play “Rhesus” that the Scythians of the north “fell upon our homes. I had reached the coast of the Friendless Sea and purposed to have crossed my Thracians there. We turned; and all that plain is trampled in a mire of Scythian slain ploughed by our spears.” (Translated by Gilbert Murray, University of Oxford.)

So who were the Scythians? More work needs to be done to compare multiple generations of people over more varied geographical locations, the authors say. Then we may have a more complete picture of who these people, with their sedentary elements and far-ranging adventurers, really were.

Gold Scythian neckpiece, from a royal kurgan in Tolstaya Mogila, Ukraine, dated to the late 4th century B.C.E.Credit: Д.Колосов / фото (сайт А-фото)
How Herodotus saw Scythians: Red-figured amphora with a Scythian warrior, made in Athens 480-470 BCECredit: Mary Harrsch
Scythian granite sculpture 5th-6th century B.C.E., granite, found near MederoveCredit: Nataliya Shestakova

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