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The Scythians (// or //; from Greek Σκύθης, Σκύθοι), also known as Scyth, Saka, Sakae, Sacae, Sai, Iskuzai, or Askuzai, were a large group of Iranian nomads who were mentioned by the literate peoples surrounding them as inhabiting large areas in the central Eurasian steppes from about the 9th century BC up until the 4th century AD. Their Scythian languages probably belonged to the Eastern branch of the Iranian languages. The "classical Scythians" known to ancient Greek historians were located in the northern Black Sea and fore-Caucasus region. Other Scythian groups documented by Assyrian, Achaemenid and Chinese sources show that they also existed in Central Asia, where they were referred to as the Iskuzai/Askuzai, Saka (Old Persian: Sakā; New Persian/Pashto: ساکا; Sanskrit: शक Śaka; Greek: Σάκαι; Latin: Sacae), and Sai (Chinese: 塞; pinyin: Sāi), respectively.
The relationships between the peoples living in these widely separated regions remains unclear. The term "Scythian" is used by modern scholars in an archaeological context for finds perceived to display attributes of the "Scytho-Siberian" culture, usually without implying an ethnic or linguistic connotation. The term Scythic may also be used in a similar way, "to describe a special phase that followed the widespread diffusion of mounted nomadism, characterized by the presence of special weapons, horse gear, and animal art in the form of metal plaques". Their westernmost territories during the Iron Age were known to classical Greek sources as Scythia.
The Scythians were among the earliest peoples to master mounted warfare. In the 8th century BC they possibly raided Zhou China. Soon after they expanded westwards and dislodged the Cimmerians from power on the Pontic Steppe. At their peak, Scythians came to dominate the entire steppe zone, stretching from the Carpathian Mountains in the west to the central China (Ordos culture) and the south Siberia (Tagar culture) in the east, creating what has been referred to as the first Central Asian nomadic empire.
Based in Crimea the western Scythians were ruled by a wealthy class known as the Royal Scyths. The Scythians established and controlled a vast trade network (Silk Road) connecting Ancient Greece, Persia, India and China, perhaps contributing to the contemporary flourishing of those civilizations. The Scythians and settled metalworkers producing for them made portable decorative objects, which survive mainly in metal forming a distinctive Scythian art. In the 7th century BC they crossed the Caucasus and frequently raided the Middle East along with the Cimmerians, playing an important role in the political developments of the region. Around 650-630 BC, Scythians briefly dominated the Medes of the Iranian Plateau, stretching their power all the away to the borders of Egypt. After losing control over Media the Scythians continued intermedling in Middle Eastern affairs, playing a leading role in the destruction of the Assyrian Empire in the Sack of Nineveh in 612 BC. The Scythians subsequently engaged in frequent conflicts with the Achaemenid Empire. The western Scythians suffered a major defeat against Macedonia in the 4th century BC, and were subsequently gradually conquered by the Sarmatians, a related Iranian people from Central Asia. The Scythians of the Asian Steppe (Saka) were attacked by the Yuezhi, Wusun and Xiongnu in the 2nd century BC, promting many of them to migrate into South Asia, where they became known as Indo-Scythians. During the 3rd century AD, after demise of the Han dynasty and the Xiongnu, remaining Scythians mounted down the Pamir Mountains and settled down in the western Tarim Basin, where the Scythian languages Khotanese and Tymshuqese are attested in Brahmi scripture from the 10th and 11th centuries AD.
- 1 Names
- 2 Origins
- 3 History
- 4 Archaeology
- 5 Physical appearance
- 6 Culture and society
- 7 Language
- 8 Historiography
- 9 Post-classical "Scythians"
- 10 List of Scythian tribes
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 External links
Sulimirski views the Histories of Herodotus as the most important literary source relating to ancient Scyths. Herodotus provides a depiction that can be related to the results of archaeological research, but apparently knew little of the eastern part of Scythia. He did say that the ancient Persians called all the Scyths Σάκαι (Sacae, Herodotus 7.64). Their principal tribe, the "Royal Scyths", ruled the vast lands occupied by the nation as a whole (Herodotus 4.20), calling themselves Σκώλοτοι (Scōloti, Herodotus 4.6). Oswald Szemerényi devotes a thorough discussion to the etymologies of ancient ethnic words for the Scythians in his work "Four old Iranian ethnic names: Scythian – Skudra – Sogdian – Saka". In it, the names of Herodotus and the names of his title, except Saka, as well as many other words for "Scythian," such as Assyrian Aškuz and Greek Skuthēs, descend from *skeud-, an ancient Indo-European root meaning "propel, shoot" (cf. English shoot). *skud- is the zero-grade; that is, a variant in which the -e- is not present. The restored Scythian name is *Skuda (archer), which among the Pontic or Royal Scythians became *Skula, in which the d has been regularly replaced by an l.
Saka, on the other hand, Szemerényi relates to an Iranian verbal root, sak-, "go, roam", and hypothesizes that the Achaemenids used "nomad" to refer to the northern tribes, rather than their endonym. The name does appear somewhat further east than the Achaemenid Empire, as the Chinese knew the Asian Scythians as Sai (Chinese character: 塞, Old Sinitic *sək). Whether they adopted the Achaemenid name, or "Saka" came to be an endonym, it is not clear. The modern region of Sistan in eastern Iran and southern Afghanistan takes its name from the classical Sakastan ("land of the Sakas").
Sakastan was not the only province of Scythian origin on the eastern margin of the Persian Empire. According to Szemerényi, Sogdiana was named from the Skuda form. Starting from the names of the province given in Old Persian inscriptions, Sugda and Suguda, and the knowledge derived from Middle Sogdian that Old Persian -gd- applied to Sogdian was pronounced as voiced fricatives, -γδ-, Szemerényi arrives at *Suγδa as an Old Sogdian endonym. Applying sound changes apparent in other Sogdian words and inherent in Indo-European he traces the development of *Suγδa from Skuda, "archer," as follows: Skuda > *Sukuda by anaptyxis > *Sukuδa > *Sukδa (syncope) > *Suγδa (assimilation).
The Scythians first appeared in the historical record in the 8th century BC. Herodotus reported three contradictory versions as to the origins of the Scythians, but placed greatest faith in this version:
There is also another different story, now to be related, in which I am more inclined to put faith than in any other. It is that the wandering Scythians once dwelt in Asia, and there warred with the Massagetae, but with ill success; they therefore quitted their homes, crossed the Araxes, and entered the land of Cimmeria.
Accounts by Herodotus of Scythian origins has been discounted recently; although his accounts of Scythian raiding activities contemporary to his writings have been deemed more reliable. Moreover, the term Scythian, like Cimmerian, was used to refer to a variety of groups from the Black Sea to southern Siberia and central Asia. "They were not a specific people", but rather variety of peoples "referred to at variety of times in history, and in several places, none of which was their original homeland"  The Bible includes a single reference to Scythians in Colossians 3:11, immediately after mentioning barbarians, possibly as an extreme example of a barbarian.
Modern interpretation of historical, archaeological and anthropological evidence has proposed two broad hypotheses. The first, formerly more espoused by Soviet and then Russian researchers, roughly followed Herodotus' (third) account, holding that the Scythians were an Eastern Iranian group who arrived from Inner Asia, i.e. from the area of Turkestan and western Siberia.
An alternative view explains the origin of the Scythian cultural complex to have emerged from local groups of the "Timber Grave" (or Srubna) culture (although this is also associated with the Cimmerians). This second theory is supported by anthropological evidence which has found that Scythian skulls are similar to preceding findings from the Timber Grave culture, and distinct from those of the Central Asian Sacae.
Others have further stressed that "Scythian" was a very broad term used by both ancient and modern scholars to describe a whole host of otherwise unrelated peoples sharing only certain similarities in lifestyle (nomadism), cultural practices and language. The 1st millennium BC ushered a period of unprecedented cultural and economic connectivity amongst disparate and wide-ranging communities. A mobile, broadly similar lifestyle would have facilitated contacts amongst disparate ethnic groupings along the expansive Eurasian steppe from the Danube to Manchuria, leading to many cultural similarities. From the viewpoint of Greek and Persian ancient observers, they were all lumped together under the etic category "Scythians".
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Early physical analyses have unanimously concluded that the Scythians, even those in the east (e.g. the Pazyryk region), possessed predominantly "Europioid" features, although mixed 'Euro-mongoloid" phenotypes also occur, depending on site and period.
Numerous ancient mitochondrial DNA samples have now been recovered from Bronze and Iron Age communities in the Eurasian steppe and Siberian forest zone, the putative 'ancestors' of the historical Scythians. Compared to Y-DNA, mtDNA is easier to extract and amplify from ancient specimens due to numerous copies of mtDNA per cell.
The earliest studies could only analyze segments of mtDNA, thus providing only broad correlations of affinity to modern 'West Eurasian' or 'East Eurasian' populations. For example, a 2002 study, the mitochondrial DNA of Saka period male and female skeletal remains from a double inhumation kurgan at the Beral site in Kazakhstan was analysed. The two individuals were found to be not closely related. The HV1 mitochondrial sequence of the male was similar to the Anderson sequence which is most frequent in European populations. On the other hand the HV1 sequence of the female suggested a greater likelihood of Asian origins.
More recent studies have been able to type for specific mtDNA lineages. For example a 2004 study studied the HV1 sequence obtained from a male "Scytho-Siberian" at the Kizil site in the Altai Republic. It belonged to the N1a maternal lineage, a geographically "west Eurasian lineage" Another study by the same team, again from two Scytho-Siberian skeletons found in the Altai Republic, were phenotypically males "of mixed Euro-Mongoloid origin". One of the individuals was found to carry the F2a maternal lineage, and the other the D lineage, both of which are characteristic of "East Eurasian" populations.
These early studies have been elaborated by an increasing number of studies by Russian scholars. Conclusions which might be drawn thus far, from an mtDNA perspective, are (i) an early, Bronze Age mixture of both west and east Eurasian lineages, with western lineages being found far to the East, but not vice-versa; (ii) an apparent reversal by Iron Age times, with increasing presence of East Eurasian lineages in the western steppe; (iii) the possible role of migrations from the sedentary south: the Balkano-Danubian and Iranian regions toward the steppe.
Ancient Y-DNA data was finally provided by Keyser et al in 2009. They studied the haplotypes and haplogroups of 26 ancient human specimens from the Krasnoyarsk area in Siberia were dated from between the middle of the 2nd millennium BC and the 4th century AD (Scythian and Sarmatian timeframe). Nearly all subjects belong to haplogroup R-M17. The authors suggest that their data shows that between Bronze and Iron Ages the constellation of populations known variously as Scythians, Andronovians, etc. were blue- (or green-) eyed, fair-skinned and light-haired people who might have played a role in the early development of the Tarim Basin civilization. Moreover, this study found that they were genetically more closely related to modern populations of eastern Europe than those of central and southern Asia. The ubiquity and utter dominance of R1a Y-DNA lineage contrasts markedly with the diversity seen in the mtDNA profiles.
However, this comparison was made on the basis of STRs. Since the 2009 study by Keyser et al, population and geographic specific SNPs have been discovered which can accurately distinguish between "European" R1a (M458, Z280) and "South Asian" R1a (Z93)(Pamjav 2012 . Re-analyzing ancient Scytho-Siberian samples for these more specific subclades will further elucidate if the Eurasian steppe populations have an ultimate Eastern European or EurAsian origin, or perhaps, both. This, in turn, might also depend on which population is studied, i.e. Herodotus' European "classical' Scythians, the Central Asian Sakae or un-named nomadic groups in the far east (Altai region) who also bore a 'Scythian" cultural tradition.
Classical Antiquity (600 BC to AD 300)
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For Herodotus, the Scythians were outlandish barbarians living north of the Black Sea in what are now Moldova, Ukraine and Crimea.—Michael Kulikowski, Rome's Gothic Wars from the Third Century to Alaric, pg. 14
In 512 BC, when King Darius the Great of Persia attacked the Scythians, he allegedly penetrated into their land after crossing the Danube. Herodotus relates that the nomadic Scythians frustrated the Persian army by letting it march through the entire country without an engagement. According to Herodotus, Darius in this manner came as far as the Volga River.
During the 5th to 3rd centuries BC, the Scythians evidently prospered. When Herodotus wrote his Histories in the 5th century BC, Greeks distinguished Scythia Minor, in present-day Romania and Bulgaria, from a Greater Scythia that extended eastwards for a 20-day ride from the Danube River, across the steppes of today's East Ukraine to the lower Don basin. The Don, then known as Tanaïs, has served as a major trading route ever since. The Scythians apparently obtained their wealth from their control over the slave trade from the north to Greece through the Greek Black Sea colonial ports of Olbia, Chersonesos, Cimmerian Bosporus, and Gorgippia. They also grew grain, and shipped wheat, flocks, and cheese to Greece.
Strabo (c. 63 BC – 24 AD) reports that King Ateas united under his power the Scythian tribes living between the Maeotian marshes and the Danube. His westward expansion brought him into conflict with Philip II of Macedon (reigned 359 to 336 BC), who took military action against the Scythians in 339 BC. Ateas died in battle, and his empire disintegrated. In the aftermath of this defeat, the Celts seem to have displaced the Scythians from the Balkans; while in south Russia, a kindred tribe, the Sarmatians, gradually overwhelmed them. In 329 BC Philip's son, Alexander the Great, came into conflict with the Scythians at the Battle of Jaxartes. A Scythian army sought to take revenge against the Macedonians for the death of Ateas, as they pushed the borders of their empire north and east, and to take advantage of a revolt by the local Sogdian satrap. However, the Scythian army was defeated by Alexander at the Battle of Jaxartes. Alexander did not intend to subdue the nomads: he wanted to go to the south, where a far more serious crisis demanded his attention. He could do so now without loss of face; and in order to make the outcome acceptable to the Saccae, he released the Scythian prisoners of war without ransom in order to broker a peace agreement. This policy was successful, and the Scythians no longer harassed Alexander's empire. The Olanesti treasure is unique in Europe. Discovered in the 1960 the artefacts are dated to the 5th century BC. The treasure contain six helmets, five greaves and an oil lamp. All the pieces are from the army of the Alexander The Great under Zopyrion command By the time of Strabo's account (the first decades AD), the Crimean Scythians had created a new kingdom extending from the lower Dnieper to the Crimea. The kings Skilurus and Palakus waged wars with Mithridates the Great (reigned 120–63 BC) for control of the Crimean littoral, including Chersonesos Taurica and the Cimmerian Bosporus. Their capital city, Scythian Neapolis, stood on the outskirts of modern Simferopol. The Goths destroyed it later, in the mid-3rd century AD.
Sakas and Indo-ScythiansFor Indo-Scythians and other central and southern Asian nomadic groups, see
Late Antiquity (AD 300 to 600)
In Late Antiquity, the notion of a Scythian ethnicity grew more vague and outsiders might dub any people inhabiting the Pontic-Caspian steppe as "Scythians", regardless of their language. Thus, Priscus, a Byzantine emissary to Attila, repeatedly referred to the latter's followers as "Scythians". But Eunapius, Claudius Cladianus and Olympiodorus usually mean "Goths" when they write "Scythians".
The Goths had displaced the Sarmatians in the 2nd century from most areas near the Roman frontier, and by early medieval times, the Turkic migration marginalized Eastern Iranian dialects, and assimilated the Saka linguistically.
Archaeological remains of the Scythians include kurgan tombs (ranging from simple exemplars to elaborate "Royal kurgans" containing the "Scythian triad" of weapons, horse-harness, and Scythian-style wild-animal art), gold, silk, and animal sacrifices, in places also with suspected human sacrifices. Mummification techniques and permafrost have aided in the relative preservation of some remains. Scythian archaeology also examines the remains of North Pontic Scythian cities and fortifications.
The spectacular Scythian grave-goods from Arzhan, and others in Tuva have been dated from about 900 BC onward. One grave find on the lower Volga gave a similar date, and one of the Steblev graves from the East European end of the Scythian area was dated to the late 8th century BC.
Archaeologists can distinguish three periods of ancient Scythian archaeological remains:
- 1st period – pre-Scythian and initial Scythian epoch: from the 9th to the middle of the 7th century BC
- 2nd period – early Scythian epoch: from the 7th to the 6th centuries BC
- 3rd period – classical Scythian epoch: from the 5th to the 4th centuries BC
From the 8th to the 2nd centuries BC, archaeology records a split into two distinct settlement areas: the older in the Sayan-Altai area in Central Asia, and the younger in the North Pontic area in Eastern Europe.
Large burial mounds (some over 20 metres high), provide the most valuable archaeological remains associated with the Scythians. They dot the Eurasian steppe belt, from Mongolia to Balkans, through Ukrainian and south Russian steppes, extending in great chains for many kilometers along ridges and watersheds. From them archaeologists have learned much about Scythian life and art. Some Scythian tombs reveal traces of Greek, Chinese, and Indian craftsmanship, suggesting a process of Hellenization, Sinification, and other local influences among the Scythians.
Some Scythian-Sarmatian cultures may have given rise to Greek stories of Amazons. Graves of armed females have been found in southern Ukraine and Russia. David Anthony notes, "About 20% of Scythian-Sarmatian "warrior graves" on the lower Don and lower Volga contained females dressed for battle as if they were men, a style that may have inspired the Greek tales about the Amazons."
Excavation at kurgan Sengileevskoe-2 found gold bowls with coatings indicating a strong opium beverage was used while cannabis was burning nearby. The gold bowls depicted scenes showing clothing and weapons.
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Some of the first Bronze Age Scythian burials documented by modern archaeologists include the kurgans at Pazyryk in the Ulagan (Red) district of the Altai Republic, south of Novosibirsk in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia (near Mongolia). Archaeologists have extrapolated the Pazyryk culture from these finds: five large burial mounds and several smaller ones between 1925 and 1949, one opened in 1947 by Russian archaeologist Sergei Rudenko. The burial mounds concealed chambers of larch-logs covered over with large cairns of boulders and stones.
The Pazyryk culture flourished between the 7th and 3rd century BC in the area associated with the Sacae.
Ordinary Pazyryk graves contain only common utensils, but in one, among other treasures, archaeologists found the famous Pazyryk Carpet, the oldest surviving wool-pile oriental rug. Another striking find, a 3-metre-high four-wheel funerary chariot, survived superbly preserved from the 5th century BC.
Although some scholars sought to connect the Pazyryk nomads with indigenous ethnic groups of the Altaic, Rudenko summed up the cultural context in the following dictum:
All that is known to us at the present time about the culture of the population of the High Altai, who have left behind them the large cairns, permits us to refer them to the Scythian period, and the Pazyryk group in particular to the 5th century BC. This is supported by radiocarbon dating.
Recent digs(see:Gelonus) in a village Bilsk near Poltava (Ukraine) have uncovered a "vast city", with the largest area of any city in the world at that time (Bilsk settlement). It has been tentatively identified by a team of archaeologists led by Boris Shramko as the site of Gelonus, the purported capital of Scythia. The city's commanding ramparts and vast area of 40 square kilometers exceed even the outlandish size reported by Herodotus. Its location at the northern edge of the Ukrainian steppe would have allowed strategic control of the north-south trade-route. Judging by the finds dated to the 5th and 4th centuries BC, craft workshops and Greek pottery abounded.
Tillia Tepe treasure
A site found in 1968 in Tillia Tepe (literally "the golden hill") in northern Afghanistan (former Bactria) near Shebergan consisted of the graves of five women and one man with extremely rich jewelry, dated to around the 1st century BC, and probably related to that of Scythian tribes normally living slightly to the north. Altogether the graves yielded several thousands of pieces of fine jewelry, usually made from combinations of gold, turquoise and lapis-lazuli.
A high degree of cultural syncretism pervades the findings, however. Hellenistic cultural and artistic influences appear in many of the forms and human depictions (from amorini to rings with the depiction of Athena and her name inscribed in Greek), attributable to the existence of the Seleucid empire and Greco-Bactrian kingdom in the same area until around 140 BC, and the continued existence of the Indo-Greek kingdom in the northwestern Indian sub-continent until the beginning of our era. This testifies to the richness of cultural influences in the area of Bactria at that time.
In artworks, the Scythians are portrayed exhibiting Europoid traits. In Histories, the 5th-century Greek historian Herodotus describes the Budini of Scythia as red-haired and grey-eyed. In the 5th century BC, Greek physician Hippocrates argued that the Scythians have purron (ruddy) skin. In the 3rd century BC, the Greek poet Callimachus described the Arismapes (Arimaspi) of Scythia as fair-haired. The 2nd century BC Han Chinese envoy Zhang Qian described the Sai (Scythians) as having yellow and blue eyes. In Natural History, the 1st century AD Roman author Pliny the Elder characterizes the Seres, sometimes identified as Iranians (Scythians) or Tocharians, as red-haired and blue-eyed. In the late 2nd century AD, the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria says that the Scythians are fair-haired. The 2nd century Greek philosopher Polemon includes the Scythians among the northern peoples characterized by red hair and blue-grey eyes. In the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD, the Greek physician Galen declares that Sarmatians, Scythians and other northern peoples have reddish hair. The fourth-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote that the Alans, a people closely related to the Scythians, were tall, blond and light-eyed. The 4th century bishop of Nyssa Gregory of Nyssa wrote that the Scythians were fair skinned and blond haired. The 5th-century physician Adamantius, who often follow Polemon, describes the Scythians are fair-haired. It is possible that the later physical descriptions by Adamantius and Gregory of Scythians refer to East Germanic tribes, as the latter were frequently referred to as "Scythians" in Roman sources at that time.
Culture and society
Scythians lived in confederated tribes, a political form of voluntary association which regulated pastures and organized a common defence against encroaching neighbors for the pastoral tribes of mostly equestrian herdsmen. While the productivity of domesticated animal-breeding greatly exceeded that of the settled agricultural societies, the pastoral economy also needed supplemental agricultural produce, and stable nomadic confederations developed either symbiotic or forced alliances with sedentary peoples – in exchange for animal produce and military protection.
Herodotus relates that three main tribes of the Scythians descended from three brothers, Lipoxais, Arpoxais, and Colaxais:
In their reign a plough, a yoke, an axe, and a bowl, all made of gold, fell from heaven upon the Scythian territory. The oldest of the brothers wished to take them away, but as he drew near the gold began to burn. The second brother approached them, but with the like result. The third and youngest then approached, upon which the fire went out, and he was enabled to carry away the golden gifts. The two eldest then made the youngest king, and henceforth the golden gifts were watched by the king with the greatest care, and annually approached with magnificent sacrifices.
Herodotus also mentions a royal tribe or clan, an elite which dominated the other Scythians:
Then on the other side of the Gerros we have those parts which are called the "Royal" lands and those Scythians who are the bravest and most numerous and who esteem the other Scythians their slaves.
The elder brothers then, acknowledging the significance of this thing, delivered the whole of the kingly power to the youngest. From Lixopais, they say, are descended those Scythians who are called the race of the Auchatai; from the middle brother Arpoxais those who are called Catiaroi and Traspians, and from the youngest of them the "Royal" tribe, who are called Paralatai: and the whole together are called, they say, Scolotoi, after the name of their king; but the Hellenes gave them the name of Scythians. Thus the Scythians say they were produced; and from the time of their origin, that is to say from the first king Targitaos, to the passing over of Dareios [the Persian Emperor Darius I] against them [512 BC], they say that there is a period of a thousand years and no more.
The rich burials of Scythian kings in tumuli (often known by the Turkic name kurgan) is evidence for the existence of a powerful elite. While an elite clan is named in some classical sources[which?] as the "Royal Dahae", the Dahae proper are generally regarded as an extinct Indo-European people, who occupied what is now Turkmenistan, and were distinct from the Scythians.
Although scholars have traditionally treated the three tribes as geographically distinct, Georges Dumézil interpreted the divine gifts as the symbols of social occupations, illustrating his trifunctional vision of early Indo-European societies: the plough and yoke symbolised the farmers, the axe – the warriors, the bowl – the priests. According to Dumézil, "the fruitless attempts of Arpoxais and Lipoxais, in contrast to the success of Colaxais, may explain why the highest strata was not that of farmers or magicians, but rather that of warriors."
The Scythians were notoriously aggressive warriors. They "fought to live and lived to fight" and "drank the blood of their enemies and used the scalps as napkins"  Ruled by small numbers of closely allied élites, Scythians had a reputation for their archers, and many gained employment as mercenaries. Scythian élites had kurgan tombs: high barrows heaped over chamber-tombs of larch-wood – a deciduous conifer that may have had special significance as a tree of life-renewal, for it stands bare in winter. Burials at Pazyryk in the Altay Mountains have included some spectacularly preserved Scythians of the "Pazyryk culture" – including the Ice Maiden of the 5th century BC.
The Ziwiye hoard, a treasure of gold and silver metalwork and ivory found near the town of Sakiz south of Lake Urmia and dated to between 680 and 625 BC, includes objects with Scythian "animal style" features. One silver dish from this find bears some inscriptions, as yet undeciphered and so possibly representing a form of Scythian writing.
Scythians also had a reputation for the use of barbed and poisoned arrows of several types, for a nomadic life centered on horses – "fed from horse-blood" according to Herodotus – and for skill in guerrilla warfare.
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According to Herodotus, Scythian costume consisted of padded and quilted leather trousers tucked into boots, and open tunics. They rode with no stirrups or saddles, just saddle-cloths. Herodotus reports that Scythians used cannabis, both to weave their clothing and to cleanse themselves in its smoke (Hist. 4.73–75); archaeology has confirmed the use of cannabis in funeral rituals.
Scythian women dressed in much the same fashion as men. A Pazyryk burial, discovered in the 1990s, contained the skeletons of a man and a woman, each with weapons, arrowheads, and an axe.
Men and women dressed differently. Herodotus mentioned that Sakas had "high caps and ... wore trousers." Clothing was sewn from plain-weave wool, hemp cloth, silk fabrics, felt, leather and hides.
Pazyryk findings give the most number of almost fully preserved garments and clothing worn by the Scythian/Saka peoples. Ancient Persian bas-relief – Apadana or Behistun inscription, ancient Greek pottery, archaeological findings from Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, China et al. give visual representations of these garments.
Herodotus says Sakas had "high caps tapering to a point and stiffly upright." Asian Saka headgear is clearly visible on the Persepolis Apadana staircase bas-relief – high pointed hat with flaps over ears and the nape of the neck. From China to the Danube delta, men seemed to have worn a variety of soft headgear – either conical like the one described by Herodotus, or rounder, more like a Phrygian cap.
Women wore a variety of different headdresses, some conical in shape others more like flattened cylinders, also adorned with metal (golden) plaques.
Based on the Pazyryk findings (can be seen also in the south Siberian, Uralic and Kazakhstan rock drawings) some caps were topped with zoomorphic wooden sculptures firmly attached to a cap and forming an integral part of the headgear, similar to the surviving nomad helmets from northern China. Men and warrior women wore tunics, often embroidered, adorned with felt applique work, or metal (golden) plaques.
Persepolis Apadana again serves a good starting point to observe tunics of the Sakas. They appear to be a sewn, long sleeve garment that extended to the knees and belted with a belt while owner's weapons were fastened to the belt (sword or dagger, gorytos, battleax, whetstone etc.). Based on numerous archeological findings in Ukraine, southern Russian and Kazakhstan men and warrior women wore long sleeve tunics that were always belted, often with richly ornamented belts. The Kazakhstan Saka (e.g. Issyk Golden Man/Maiden) wore shorter tunics and more close fitting tunics than the Pontic steppe Scythians. Some Pazyryk culture Saka wore short belted tunic with a lapel on a right side, upright collar, 'puffed' sleeves narrowing at a wrist and bound in narrow cuffs of a color different from the rest of the tunic.
Scythian women wore long, loose robes, ornamented with metal plaques (gold). Women wore shawls, often richly decorated with metal (golden) plaques.
Men and women wore coats, e.g. Pazyryk Saka had many varieties, from fur to felt. They could have worn a riding coat that later was known as a Median robe or Kantus. Long sleeved, and open, it seems that on the Persepolis Apadana Skudrian delegation is perhaps shown wearing such coat. The Pazyryk felt tapestry shows a rider wearing a billowing cloak.
Men and women wore long trousers, often adorned with metal plaques and often embroidered or adorned with felt appliqués; trousers could have been wider or tight fitting depending on the area. Materials used depended on the wealth, climate and necessity.
Men and women warriors wore variations of long and shorter boots, wool-leather-felt gaiter-boots and moccasin-like shoes. They were either of a laced or simple slip on type. Women wore also soft shoes with metal (gold) plaques.
Men and women wore belts. Warrior belts were made of leather, often with gold or other metal adornments and had many attached leather thongs for fastening of the owner's gorytos, sword, whet stone, whip etc. Belts were fastened with metal or horn belt-hooks, leather thongs and metal (often golden) or horn belt-plates.
Scythian contacts with craftsmen in Greek colonies along the northern shores of the Black Sea resulted in the famous Scythian gold adornments that feature among the most glamorous artifacts of world museums. Ethnographically extremely useful as well, the gold depicts Scythian men as bearded, long-haired Caucasoids. "Greco-Scythian" works depicting Scythians within a much more Hellenic style date from a later period, when Scythians had already adopted elements of Greek culture, and the most elaborate royal pieces are assumed to have been made by Greek goldsmiths for this lucrative market. Other metalwork pieces from across the whole Eurasian steppe use an animal style, showing animals, often in combat and often with their legs folded beneath them. This origins of this style remain debated, but it probably both received and gave influences in the art of the neighbouring settled peoples, and acted as a fast route for transmission of motifs across the width of Eurasia.
Surviving Scythian objects are mostly small portable pieces of metalwork: elaborate personal jewelry, weapon-ornaments and horse-trappings. But finds from sites with permafrost show rich and brightly coloured textiles, leatherwork and woodwork, not to mention tatooing. The western royal pieces executed Central-Asian animal motifs with Greek realism: winged gryphons attacking horses, battling stags, deer, and eagles, combined with everyday motifs like milking ewes.
In 2000, the touring exhibition 'Scythian Gold' introduced the North American public to the objects made for Scythian nomads by Greek craftsmen north of the Black Sea, and buried with their Scythian owners under burial mounds on the flat plains of present-day Ukraine. In 2001, the discovery of an undisturbed royal Scythian burial-barrow illustrated Scythian animal-style gold that lacks the direct influence of Greek styles. Forty-four pounds of gold weighed down the royal couple in this burial, discovered near Kyzyl, capital of the Siberian republic of Tuva.
Ancient influences from Central Asia became identifiable in China following contacts of metropolitan China with nomadic western and northwestern border territories from the 8th century BC. The Chinese adopted the Scythian-style animal art of the steppes (descriptions of animals locked in combat), particularly the rectangular belt-plaques made of gold or bronze, and created their own versions in jade and steatite.
Following their expulsion by the Yuezhi, some Scythians may also have migrated to the area of Yunnan in southern China. Scythian warriors could also have served as mercenaries for the various kingdoms of ancient China. Excavations of the prehistoric art of the Dian civilization of Yunnan have revealed hunting scenes of Caucasoid horsemen in Central Asian clothing.
Scythian influences have been identified as far as Korea and Japan. Various Korean artifacts, such as the royal crowns of the kingdom of Silla, are said to be of Scythian design. Similar crowns, brought through contacts with the continent, can also be found in Kofun era Japan.
The religious beliefs of the Scythians was a type of Pre-Zoroastrian Iranian religion and differed from the post-Zoroastrian Iranian thoughts. Foremost in the Scythian pantheon stood Tabiti, who was later replaced by Atar, the fire-pantheon of Iranian tribes, and Agni, the fire deity of Indo-Aryans. The Scythian belief was a more archaic stage than the Zoroastrian and Hindu systems. The use of cannabis to induce trance and divination by soothsayers was a characteristic of the Scythian belief system.
The "Scythian languages" are essentially unattested, and their internal divergence is difficult to judge. They belonged to the Eastern Iranian family of languages.
The Scythian languages may have formed a dialect continuum: "Scytho-Sarmatian" in the west and "Scytho-Khotanese" or Saka in the east. They were mostly marginalized and assimilated as a consequence of the late antiquity and early Middle Ages Slavic and Turkic expansion. Some remnants of the eastern groups have survived as modern Pashto and Pamiri languages in Central Asia. The western (Sarmatian) group of Scythian survived as the language of the Alans and eventually gave rise to the modern Ossetian language.
- The Budini are a large and powerful nation: they have all deep blue eyes, and bright red hair. There is a city in their territory, called Gelonus, which is surrounded with a lofty wall, thirty furlongs (τριήκοντα σταδίων = c. 5.5 km) each way, built entirely of wood. All the houses in the place and all the temples are of the same material. Here are temples built in honour of the Grecian gods, and adorned after the Greek fashion with images, altars, and shrines, all in wood. There is even a festival, held every third year in honour of Bacchus, at which the natives fall into the Bacchic fury. For the fact is that the Geloni were anciently Greeks, who, being driven out of the factories along the coast, fled to the Budini and took up their abode with them. They still speak a language half Greek, half Scythian.
Herodotus and other classical historians listed quite a number of tribes who lived near the Scythians, and presumably shared the same general milieu and nomadic steppe culture, often called "Scythian culture", even though scholars may have difficulties in determining their exact relationship to the "linguistic Scythians". A partial list of these tribes includes the Agathyrsi, Geloni, Budini, and Neuri.
Herodotus presented four different versions of Scythian origins:
- Firstly (4.7), the Scythians' legend about themselves, which portrays the first Scythian king, Targitaus, as the child of the sky-god and of a daughter of the Dnieper. Targitaus allegedly lived a thousand years before the failed Persian invasion of Scythia, or around 1500 BC. He had three sons, before whom fell from the sky a set of four golden implements – a plough, a yoke, a cup and a battle-axe. Only the youngest son succeeded in touching the golden implements without them bursting with fire, and this son's descendants, called by Herodotus the "Royal Scythians", continued to guard them.
- Secondly (4.8), a legend told by the Pontic Greeks featuring Scythes, the first king of the Scythians, as a child of Hercules and Echidna.
- Thirdly (4.11), in the version which Herodotus said he believed most, the Scythians came from a more southern part of Central Asia, until a war with the Massagetae (a powerful tribe of steppe nomads who lived just northeast of Persia) forced them westward.
- Finally (4.13), a legend which Herodotus attributed to the Greek bard Aristeas, who claimed to have got himself into such a Bachanalian fury that he ran all the way northeast across Scythia and further. According to this, the Scythians originally lived south of the Rhipaean mountains, until they got into a conflict with a tribe called the Issedones, pressed in their turn by the Cyclopes; and so the Scythians decided to migrate westwards.
The Sacae, or Scyths, were clad in trousers, and had on their heads tall stiff caps rising to a point. They bore the bow of their country and the dagger; besides which they carried the battle-axe, or sagaris. They were in truth Amyrgian (Western) Scythians, but the Persians called them Sacae, since that is the name which they gave to all Scythians.
Now the greater part of the Scythians, beginning at the Caspian Sea, are called Daheans, but those who are situated more to the east than these are named Massageteans and Saceans, whereas all the rest are given the general name of Scythians, though each people is given a separate name of its own. They are all for the most part nomads. But the best known of the nomads are those who took away Bactriana from the Greeks (i.e. Greco-Bactrians), I mean the Asians, Pasians, Tocharians, and Sacarauls, who originally came from the country on the other side of the Jaxartes River that adjoins that of the Sacae and the Sogdians and was occupied by the Sacae. And as for the Daëans, some of them are called Aparns, some Xanthians, and some Pissures. Now of these the Aparni are situated closest to Hyrcania and the part of the sea that borders on it, but the remainder extend even as far as the country that stretches parallel to Aria.
Although the classical Scythians may have largely disappeared by the 1st century BC, Eastern Romans continued to speak conventionally of "Scythians" to designate Germanic tribes and confederations or mounted Eurasian nomadic barbarians in general: in 448 AD two mounted "Scythians" led the emissary Priscus to Attila's encampment in Pannonia. The Byzantines in this case carefully distinguished the Scythians from the Goths and Huns who also followed Attila.
The Sarmatians (including the Alans and finally the Ossetians) counted as Scythians in the broadest sense of the word – as speakers of Eastern Iranian languages, and are considered mostly of Indo-Iranian descent.
Byzantine sources also refer to the Rus raiders who attacked Constantinople around 860 AD in contemporary accounts as "Tauroscythians", because of their geographical origin, and despite their lack of any ethnic relation to Scythians. Patriarch Photius may have first applied the term to them during the Siege of Constantinople (860).
Early Modern usage
Owing to their reputation as established by Greek historians, the Scythians long served as the epitome of savagery and barbarism.
Here there is no Greek or Jew. There is no difference between those who are circumcised and those who are not. There is no rude outsider, or even a Scythian. There is no slave or free person. But Christ is everything. And he is in everything.
The barbarous Scythian
Characteristically, early modern English discourse on Ireland frequently resorted to comparisons with Scythians in order to confirm that the indigenous population of Ireland descended from these ancient "bogeymen", and showed themselves as barbaric as their alleged ancestors. Edmund Spenser wrote that
the Chiefest [nation that settled in Ireland] I Suppose to be Scithians ... which firste inhabitinge and afterwarde stretchinge themselves forthe into the lande as theire numbers increased named it all of themselues Scuttenlande which more brieflye is Called Scuttlande or Scotlande.
As proofs for this origin Spenser cites the alleged Irish customs of blood-drinking, nomadic lifestyle, the wearing of mantles and certain haircuts and
Cryes allsoe vsed amongeste the Irishe which savor greatlye of the Scythyan Barbarisme.
William Camden, one of Spenser's main sources, comments on this legend of origin that
to derive descent from a Scythian stock, cannot be thought any waies dishonourable, seeing that the Scythians, as they are most ancient, so they have been the Conquerours of most Nations, themselves alwaies invincible, and never subject to the Empire of others.
The 15th-century Polish chronicler Jan Długosz was the first to connect the prehistory of Poland with Sarmatians, and the connection was taken up by other historians and chroniclers, such as Marcin Bielski, Marcin Kromer and Maciej Miechowita. Other Europeans depended for their view of Polish Sarmatism on Miechowita's Tractatus de Duabus Sarmatiis, a work which provided a substantial source of information about the territories and peoples of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in a language of international currency. Tradition specified that the Sarmatians themselves were descended from Japheth, son of Noah.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, foreigners regarded the Russians as descendants of Scythians. It became conventional to refer to Russians as Scythians in 18th-century poetry, and Alexander Blok drew on this tradition sarcastically in his last major poem, The Scythians (1920). In the 19th century, romantic revisionists in the West transformed the "barbarian" Scyths of literature into the wild and free, hardy and democratic ancestors of all blond Indo-Europeans.
A number of groups have claimed possible descent from the Scythians, including the Ossetians, Pashtuns (in particular, the Sakzai tribe) and the Parthians (whose homelands lay to the east of the Caspian Sea and who were thought to have come there from north of the Caspian). Some legends of the Poles, the Picts, the Gaels, the Hungarians (in particular, the Jassics), the Serbs, Bosniaks and the Croats, among others, also include mention of Scythian origins. Some writers claim that Scythians figured in the formation of the empire of the Medes and likewise of Caucasian Albania.
The Scythians also feature in some national origin-legends of the Celts. In the second paragraph of the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, the élite of Scotland claim Scythia as a former homeland of the Scots. According to the 11th-century Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland), the 14th-century Auraicept na n-Éces and other Irish folklore, the Irish originated in Scythia and were descendants of Fénius Farsaid, a Scythian prince who created the Ogham alphabet and who was one of the principal architects of the Gaelic language.
The Carolingian kings of the Franks traced Merovingian ancestry to the Germanic tribe of the Sicambri. Gregory of Tours documents in his History of the Franks that when Clovis was baptised, he was referred to as a Sicamber with the words "Mitis depone colla, Sicamber, adora quod incendisti, incendi quod adorasti.". The Chronicle of Fredegar in turn reveals that the Franks believed the Sicambri to be a tribe of Scythian or Cimmerian descent, who had changed their name to Franks in honour of their chieftain Franco in 11 BC.
Based on such accounts of Scythian founders of certain Germanic as well as Celtic tribes, British historiography in the British Empire period such as Sharon Turner in his History of the Anglo-Saxons, made them the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons.
The idea was taken up in the British Israelism of John Wilson, who adopted and promoted the "idea that the "European Race, in particular the Anglo-Saxons, were descended from certain Scythian tribes, and these Scythian tribes (as many had previously stated from the Middle Ages onward) were in turn descended from the ten Lost Tribes of Israel." Tudor Parfitt, author of The Lost Tribes of Israel and Professor of Modern Jewish Studies, points out that the proof cited by adherents of British Israelism is "of a feeble composition even by the low standards of the genre."
Linguistically, only modern-day Ossetian and Pashto as well as Yaghnobi and Pamiri languages are similar to old Eastern Iranian languages once spoken by Scythians.
List of Scythian tribes
- Dahae confederacy
- Sindi people
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- Beckwith 2009, p. 117 "The Scythians, or Northern Iranians, who were culturally and ethnolinguistically a single group at the beginning of their expansion, had earlier controlled the entire steppe zone."
- Beckwith 2009, pp. 377–380 "... conquest of the entire steppe zone by the Northern Iranians—literally, by the "Scythians"-in the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age"
- Bonfante (2011, p. 71)
- Beckwith 2009, p. 11
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- Beckwith 2009, p. 85 "The Saka, or Śaka, people then began their long migration that ended with their conquest of northern India, where they are also known as the Indo-Scythians."
- Sulimirski 1985, pp. 149–150.
- Szemerényi 1980, pp. 45–46.
- Rosenberg, Donna (1999). World Mythology: An Anthology of Great Myths and Epics. McGraw-Hill-NTC Pub. Group. p. 58.
Later, in the second century B.C., related Saka tribes moved southwest from Sakastan to the area that become Seistan and Zabulistan on the eastern border of Persia
- Puri, B.N. (1999). "The Sakas and Indo-Parthians". In Dani, Ahmad Hasan; Masson, Vadim Mikhaïlovich. The Dawn of Civilization: Earliest Times to 700 BC. History of Civilizations of Central Asia I. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. p. 191.
The Indo-Greeks in Kabul impeded further Saka progress and compelled them to move westwards in the direction of Herat and thence to Sistan. This country was finally named Sakastan after them.
- Hathaway, Jane (2003). A Tale of Two Factions: Myth, Memory, and Identity in Ottoman Egypt and Yemen. Albany: SUNY Press. p. 242.
Sistan (Sakastan) takes its name from the Scythians, or Saka
- Szemerényi 1980, pp. 26–36.
- Szemerényi 1980, p. 39.
- Szemerényi, Oswald (1980) "Four old Iranian ethnic names: Scythian; Skudra; Sogdian; Saka" in: Sitzungsberichte der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften; 371 = Scripta minora, vol. 4, pp. 2051–93 Azagoshnasp.net
- Herodotus 4.11 trans. G. Rawlinson.
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- Traces of the Iranian root xšaya – "ruler" – may persist in all three names.
- Herodotus. History. Book IV, verse 5.
- Herodotus. History. Book IV, verses 19–20.
- Herodotus. History. Book IV, verses 6–7.
- The first scholar to compare the three strata of Scythian society to the Indian castes, Arthur Christensen, published Les types du premiere homme et du premier roi dans l'histoire legendaire des Iraniens, I (Stockholm, Leiden, 1917).
- Quoted in Wouter Wiggert Belier. Decayed Gods: Origin and Development of Georges Dumezil's "Ideologie Tripartie". Brill Academic Publishers, 1991. ISBN 90-04-06195-9. Page 69.
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- "Les Saces", Iaroslav Lebedynsky, p.73 ISBN 2-87772-337-2
- Crowns similar to the Scythian ones discovered in Tillia Tepe "appear later, during the 5th and 6th century at the eastern edge of the Asia continent, in the tumulus tombs of the Kingdom of Silla, in South-East Korea. "Afganistan, les trésors retrouvés", 2006, p282, ISBN 978-2-7118-5218-5
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- see Zosimus, Historia Nova, 1.23 & 1.28, also Zonaras, Epitome historiarum, book 12. Also the title "Scythika" of the lost work of the 3rd-century Greek historian Dexippus who narrated the Germanic invasions of his age
- The Ossetes, the only Iranian people presently[update] resident in Europe, call their country Iriston or Iron, though North Ossetia now[update] officially has the designation Alania. They speak an Eastern Iranian language Ossetic, whose more widely spoken dialect, Iron or Ironig (i.e. Iranian), preserves some similarities with the Gathic Avestan language, another Iranian language of the Eastern branch
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The evidence of both the ancient authors and the archaeological remains point to a massive migration of Sacian (Sakas)/Massagetan tribes from the Syr Daria Delta (Central Asia) by the middle of the second century B.C. Some of the Syr Darian tribes; they also invaded North India.
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- Waldman, Carl; Mason, Catherine (2006). Encyclopedia of European Peoples. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 1438129181. Retrieved January 16, 2015.
- West, Barbara A. (January 1, 2009). Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 1438119135. Retrieved January 18, 2015.
- Alekseev, A. Yu. et al., "Chronology of Eurasian Scythian Antiquities Born by New Archaeological and 14C Data". Radiocarbon, Vol .43, No 2B, 2001, p 1085–1107.
- Davis-Kimball, Jeannine. 2002. Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines. Warner Books, New York. 1st Trade printing, 2003. ISBN 0-446-67983-6 (pbk).
- Gamkrelidze and Ivanov (1984). Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical Typological Analysis of a Proto-Language and Proto-Culture (Parts I and II). Tbilisi State University.
- Harmatta, J., "Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians", Acta Universitatis de Attila József Nominatae. Acta antique et archaeologica Tomus XIII. Szeged 1970, Kroraina.com
- Invalid language code. Jaedtke, Wolfgang. Steppenkind, Piper Verlag, Munich 2008. ISBN 978-3-492-25146-4. This novel contains detailed descriptions of the life of nomadic Scythians around 700 BC.
- Johnson, James William, "The Scythian: His Rise and Fall", Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Apr., 1959), pp. 250–257, University of Pennsylvania Press, JSTOR
- Lebedynsky, I. (2001). "Les Scythes: la civilisation nomade des steppes VIIe–IIIe siècle av. J.-C." / Errance, Paris.
- Lebedynsky Iaroslav (2006) "Les Saces", Editions Errance, ISBN 2-87772-337-2
- Mallory, J.P. (1989). In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language Archeology and Myth. Thames and Hudson. Chapter 2; and pages 51–53 for a quick reference.
- Newark, T. (1985). The Barbarians: Warriors and wars of the Dark Ages. Blandford: New York. See pages 65, 85, 87, 119–139.
- Renfrew, C. (1988). Archeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European origins. Cambridge University Press.
- Rolle, Renate, The world of the Scythians, London and New York (1989).
- Invalid language code. Rybakov, Boris. Paganism of Ancient Rus. Nauka, Moscow, 1987
- Torday, Laszlo (1998). Mounted Archers: The Beginnings of Central Asian History. Durham Academic Press. ISBN 1-900838-03-6.
|40x40px||Wikimedia Commons has media related to Scythians.|
- Scythians overview by Chris Bennet
- Livius website articles on ancient history, entry on Scythians/Sacae by Jona Lendering
- The early burial in Tuva
- Color illustrations of Scythian gold
- Published excavations of royal Scythian kurgan (barrow) at Chertomlyk reviewed
- all known Scythian kings listed on Regnal Chronologies
- Herodotus, Histories, Book IV – translated by Rawlinson, 1942 edition
- Livio Stecchini, "The Mapping of the Earth: Scythia": reconstructing the map of Scythia according to the conceptual geography of Herodotus
- Livio Stecchini, "The Mapping of the Earth: Gerrhos"
- 1998 NOVA documentary: "Ice Mummies: Siberian Ice Maiden" Transcript
- on Sarmatian (a related Iranian group) trade and ethnic connections
- "A chronology of the Scythian antiquities of Eurasia based on new archaeological and C-14 data", Alekseev, A.Y. et al. A detailed scholarly article on pre-Scythian, early Scythian and classical Scythian archaeological sites and their dating, by the Hermitage Museum's director of archaeology and others.
- "Some problems in the study of the chronology of the ancient nomadic cultures in Eurasia (9th–3rd centuries BC)", Alekseev, A.Y. et al. More of the same.
- "Scythian Gold From Siberia Said to Predate the Greeks" A journalist's article on the Arzhan finds, quoting Hermitage experts
- Geldings for the Gods
- An Introductory Bibliography on Scythia Invalid language code.
- Haplogroups in India (PDF file)
- Y-Chromosome Biallelic Haplogroups
- Unravelling migrations in the steppe: mitochondrial DNA sequences from ancient central Asians.
- Ancient DNA provides new insights into the history of south Siberian Kurgan people
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