Who Were the Scythians (Horse Warriors)?


Step into the ancient world of the Scythians and discover a tale of conquest, displacement, and cultural assimilation that shaped history.

Imagine a vast expanse of rolling grasslands, stretching from the Black Sea all the way to China, populated by a diverse yet culturally related group of nomads known as the Scythians or Saka. These horseback-riding warriors were the masters of the steppes, feared and respected by ancient civilizations such as the Greeks, Persians, Romans, and Chinese.

As Barry Cunliffe, the British archeologist and academic, states, “The valley of the Yenisei river, which rises in the eastern Sayan mountains and flows across the vastness of Siberia to the Arctic Ocean, can fairly claim to be the birthplace of the horse-riding hordes that were to dominate the steppe.”

Legend has it that the ancient Greeks coined the term “Scythian” to describe this fierce and proud group of people. And why wouldn’t they? The Scythians were renowned for their unparalleled archery skills on horseback, even without the luxury of stirrups or saddles. They were the ultimate hit-and-run masters, striking fear into their enemies with their ferocious battle tactics.

Between the years 800 B.C. and A.D. 300, Scythian culture flourished on the steppes (modern-day Ukraine and southern Russia), leaving an indelible mark on history. Yet, despite their power and influence, they left behind very few records of their own.

So, how do we know about this enigmatic empire? It’s a fascinating tale of archaeological discoveries and written accounts from their neighbors. These fragments of history, pieced together like a puzzle, give us a glimpse into the world of the Scythians and the impact they had on the ancient world.

Through the study of their burial mounds, weapons, and artifacts, we can catch a glimpse of their culture, customs, and beliefs. And, of course, the written accounts of their neighbors provide a wealth of information about the Scythian Empire and the people who lived within it.

So, while the Scythian Empire may have left behind few records of their own, their legacy lives on through the fascinating discoveries of modern-day archaeologists and the written accounts of the ancient world.

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What did the Scythians Look Like?

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A gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear in his right hand. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Many ancient historians painted a vivid picture of the people of Scythia, suggesting a variety of unique and intriguing physical characteristics. The ancient Greeks and Chinese had quite a bit to say about the people of Scythia, and their descriptions are simply fascinating. According to Halicarnassus, a Greek historian from the 5th century BC, the Budini of Scythia had red hair and gray eyes.

The Greek physician Hippocrates also weighed in, claiming that the Scythians had light skin and impressive flexibility, which even impacted their warfare strategies. Callimachus, a Greek poet from the 3rd century BC, described the fair-haired Arismapes of Scythia, while Zhang Qian, a Han Chinese envoy from the 2nd century BC, said that the Sai (Saka) had eyes that were yellow (probably meaning hazel or green) and blue.

Later Greek philosophers and physicians like Polemon and Galen associated the Scythians with reddish or fair hair as well as blue-grey or reddish hair. And according to the fourth-century bishop Gregory of Nyssa, the Scythians were fair-skinned and blond-haired.

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Tracing the Origin of the Scythians in Central Asia

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Scythian archer draws an arrow from his quiver as he turns to shoot at the enemy.  Source: Wikimedia Commons

This region is a melting pot of diverse cultures, languages, and peoples, making it an important hub for studying human evolution. With its strategic location at the crossroads of Eurasia, Central Asia has seen countless waves of migration and genetic mixing over the centuries, leading to some of the highest levels of genetic diversity in Eurasia.

From their base in the Caucasus Steppe, the Scythians expanded their territory, conquering the vast lands to the north of the Black Sea up to the Danube River, where they drew the western boundary of their territory. But their thirst for power didn’t stop there. Rumor has it that they might have even had access to the lush plains of Wallachia and Moldavia. It was also noted by ancient historians that they intermarried with the early Iranian populations of the Catacomb culture, leaving their mark on the land and creating a unique blend of cultures.

Recent advancements in ancient DNA research have shed light on the genetic history of Central Asian populations. These studies have shown that migration and admixture involving different genetic ancestries have taken place since the Bronze Age. The Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), which flourished in southern Central Asia during this time, has been found to have genetic ancestries primarily related to Iranian early farmers (around 60–65%), along with smaller proportions of Anatolian farmer-related ancestry (around 20–25%), and West Siberian hunter-gatherer-related ancestry (around 10%). The BMAC, as it is also known, is the modern archaeological designation for a Bronze Age civilization of Central Asia, previously dated to c. 2400–1900 BC by Sandro Salvatori, in its urban phase, or Integration Era.

Around 4,100 years ago, steppe-related ancestry emerged in Central Asia, and during the Iron Age, the genetic makeup of eastern nomads was found in the Central Steppe Scythians and Xinjiang populations. Recently, a new genetic ancestry represented by Tarim_EMBA1 mummies from the Early and Middle Bronze Age in the Tarim Basin of Xinjiang was discovered. Tarim_EMBA1 is believed to have been mainly derived from ancient Northern Eurasian populations and isolated since the early Holocene. However, it is unclear how the unique Xinjiang Bronze Age component, Tarim_EMBA1, contributed to modern Central Asian populations.

Although the complex demographic history of Xinjiang populations over the past 5,000 years has been revealed, the admixture of the genetic ancestries mentioned above that contributed to modern Central Asian populations remains unknown.

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How the Scythians Built a Thriving Trading Network?

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Gold pectoral, or neckpiece, from an aristocratic kurgan in Tovsta Mohyla. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Pontic Scythians were well-known for their extensive trading activities, importing luxury goods such as personal ornaments, gold and silver items, carved gemstones, wine, oil, weapons, and pottery from mainland Greece and the Aegean Islands. They mainly sourced these items from the workshops of Pontic Olbia during the early Scythian period. However, in the 5th century BC, they began importing pottery from Corinth and Athens. During the late Scythian period, their trade shifted towards the Bosporan kingdom, with most of their imported pottery and decorated items coming from Panticapaeum. It is worth noting that the market for Pontic Olbia was limited to a small part of western Scythia during this period.

A significant trade route existed in Scythia during the early Scythian period. It began in Pontic Olbia and followed the Inhul River, crossed the Dnipro, then turned east towards the Gelonians’ country. The route continued by crossing the Don and Volga rivers, passing through the Ural Mountains, and extending into Asia until the Altai Mountains. Scythian traders traveled along this route to engage in commerce, and it was also used to transport gold from eastern Eurasia to Pontic Olbia. The Scythians’ conquest of the north Pontic region and their establishment of a “Pax Scythica” made it safe for traders to use this route. Pontic Olbia’s location allowed it to become an important commercial and cultural center in the northern Pontic region, and the city maintained friendly relations with its neighboring populations.

The Scythian kings possibly provided protection and cooperation to enable flourishing trade relations, resulting in the rapid growth of Greek colonies on the northern shores of the Black Sea during the 6th century BC. The Scythian upper classes also benefited from these relations and became significantly wealthier. The trade relationship between the Greeks and the Scythians had a significant impact on both cultures. Greek art influenced Scythian art, and during the Late Scythian period, most of the artwork found in Scythian tombs was created by Greek artisans and depicted Scythian motifs and scenes. 

However, in the 5th century BC, the Scythians, and Greek cities’ relations became more hostile, resulting in the former destroying the latter’s rural settlements and grain-producing hinterlands. The Scythians then instituted an economic policy that made the sedentary peoples of the forest steppe north of them the primary producers of grain. This grain was transported through the Buh and Dnipro rivers to Greek cities like Tyras, Niconium, and Pontic Olbia, which exported it to mainland Greece at a profit. This arrangement ended sometime between 435 and 400 BC, with the Greek cities regaining their independence and rebuilding their rural settlements.

The Scythians also participated in the Silk Road, a vast trade network that connected Greece, Persia, India, and China. Settled metalworkers produced portable decorative objects for the Scythians, resulting in a distinctive Scythian art style. While most Scythian groups were not direct beneficiaries of the Silk Road trade, they had the opportunity to organize raids on trading caravans or collect tolls. Some Scythians also traded with Silk Road merchants, and Scythian warriors traveled the Silk Road to sell their services as mercenaries or bodyguards.

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Who are the Descendants of the Scythians?

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South Ossetian performers. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Research suggests that Ossetians are the last remaining linguistic and cultural descendants of the ancient nomadic Scythians. Ossetians are a unique ethnic group who call the southern side of the Caucasus mountains their home, specifically South Ossetia in central Georgia and North Ossetia in southern Russia. There are around 500,000 Ossetians, and the majority of them live in Kabardino-Balkaria and near Stavropol in the Caucasus area of southern Russia, as well as in Tbilisi and other locations in eastern Georgia. Ossetians can also be found in other former Soviet Union countries, while Turkey is home to several Muslim Ossetians. North Ossetia is home to the majority of Muslim Ossetians. With their distinctive physical features, such as high cheekbones and blade-like noses, which is why it’s easy to spot an Ossetian in a crowd.

The Ossetians have inherited much of the culture of the medieval Alans, who introduced equestrian culture to Europe. Their rich oral literature includes the epic of the Narts, a body of heroic legends that shares much in common with the Persian Book of Kings and other works of Indo-European mythology.

What Happened to the Scythians?

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Saka soldier, on the tomb of Xerxes I. Source: Wikimedia Commons

For a long time, the Scythians were a force to be reckoned with. Their reputation for fearlessness and strength preceded them, and many believed that they were invincible. However, as time passed, it became clear that they were not invulnerable after all.

Their defeat at the hands of King Philip II of Macedonia in 339 B.C. was a turning point. The Scythians, led by King Ateas, tried to cross the Danube River but were met with fierce resistance from Philip’s troops. The ensuing battle was savage, with Ateas losing his life and tens of thousands of his people being taken captive.

Years later, the Saka tribe of Scythians suffered another crushing defeat, this time at the hands of the young prince named Alexander, a name that would go down in history as “the Great.” In the Battle of Jaxartes, Alexander proved himself to be a strong opponent, finally cornering the elusive nomads and slaying their leader.


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