The Scythians: Challenging Perceptions

The Scythian people, who lived across the Pontic steppe around 700-200 BCE, are often portrayed as a culture of nomadic warriors. But this idea is challenged by archaeological evidence that indicates a more complex and varied culture at this place and time.

Credit Dbachmann, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Scythians controlled large areas of Eurasia from the Black Sea to China from about 11BC to 2AD. They were of Iranian lineage and it is a long held belief that they were a nomadic people. Today what was the centre of their empire would be in Crimea. Much of the impressions we have about them come from the writings of the Ancient Greeks.

A new study by Alicia R. Ventresca Miller and team of the University of Michigan employed isotopic analyses to investigate patterns of diet and mobility in Scythian populations.

Our multi-isotopic approach demonstrates generally low levels of human mobility in the vicinity of urban locales, where populations engaged in agro-pastoralism focused primarily on millet agriculture. Some individuals show evidence for long-distance mobility, likely associated with significant inter-regional connections Re-evaluating Scythian lifeways: Isotopic analysis of diet and mobility in Iron Age Ukraine

They measured isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and strontium in human teeth and bones from several Scythian-era burial sites in Ukraine. Isotopes that reflect diet, indicate that in some places there was a varied diet including numerous domesticated crops, while isotopes that reflect geologic surroundings indicate that most people did not travel long distances during their lifetimes.

These results support the growing understanding that Scythian populations were not a homogenous culture, but a more diverse group which, in some places, lived more sedentary lives with a dependence on agriculture. The authors suggest that future studies should expand this work to compare multiple generations of people over more varied geographical locations. This work will help archaeologists move toward a more complete idea of what it meant to be Scythian.

Bronze mirror found at the site of Mamai-Gora Credit:

The authors add:

“Our multi-isotopic study challenges romantic notions of wide-ranging Scythian nomads. We show that while some individuals from classic Scythian contexts traveled long distances, the majority remained local to their settlements, farming millet and raising livestock in mixed economic systems.”

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. In fact, it is perhaps variability, rather than a uniformity of nomadic warriors, that truly frames the Scythians as predecessors to incipient globalization in Eurasia. Re-evaluating Scythian lifeways: Isotopic analysis of diet and mobility in Iron Age Ukraine

For more on this please visit: Citation: Ventresca Miller AR, Johnson J, Makhortykh S, Gerling C, Litvinova L, Andrukh S, et al. (2021) Re-evaluating Scythian lifeways: Isotopic analysis of diet and mobility in Iron Age Ukraine. PLoS ONE 16(3): e0245996.

And a bit more here about some of the incredible Scythian artefacts in The British Museum

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