Who Were the Ancient Scythians?

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Unless you’re a fan of comic-book series (and Netflix film) The Old Guard, you may never have heard of the Scythians before now, but chances are you’ve seen some aspect of their influence, down through the long years of human history. They are believed to originate from ancient Iran around 900 B.C., spreading from Central Asia into what is now Ukraine and parts of Russia. They were a formidable force in this part of the world for nearly a thousand years. Although archaeologists and anthropologists acknowledge Scythians as a specific group, researchers have identified at least two dozen tribes that shared aspects of Scythian culture, and are sometimes labelled as such. As nomadic groups spread across a broad swath of territory, ancient Scythian tribes were ethnically diverse, but had some key similarities, especially when it came to their preferred weapons, use of horses, and forms of art. Here’s what we know about them. Scythians Had a Fearsome Reputation The Greeks were no wimps when it came to combat, but even they were rattled by them. The great Herodotus wrote extensively about them in his Histories, and thank goodness he did because the they left no written records of their own. Herodotus noted that “none who attack [the Scythians] can escape, and none can catch them if they desire not to be found.” As nomads, they had no real cities to besiege — Herodotus thought this made them a particularly challenging people to attack and subdue. It also made them highly desirable fighters to have on your side, and history records that ancient Scythian mercenaries sometimes hired out to Greek city-states. They were also known to worship some Greek gods, especially Ares, the god of war, and would sacrifice some of the men they captured in battle to Ares. They were literally bloodthirsty. “A Scythian drinks the blood of the first man he has overthrown,” noted Herodotus, whose writing also goes into some detail about the ways in which Scythians warriors would repurpose the bodies of their foes — including turning their skulls into drinking cups. Cheers!  Read More: 5 Fierce Warrior Cultures Horses Were a Big Deal to Them What made Scythians so formidable wasn’t simply the fact that they were great fighters, but that they were great fighters on horseback. If this sounds at all familiar to Game of Thrones fans, it’s with good reason: The real-life ancient tribes of the Scythian regions inspired the fictional Dothraki horse lords. While they could and did cut a bloody swath through their enemies in hand-to-hand situations, as cavalry, they were an absolute terror. Their hit-and-run tactics on infantry and fixed positions were devastating.  Read More: Ancient DNA Illuminates the History of Horses in the Americas But horses were more than just vehicles of war for them, they were an essential part of their nomadic lifestyle, providing maximum mobility. They kept vast herds of horses and the animals themselves were symbols of both status and wealth. Horses are depicted regularly in surviving Scythian art and they were deemed essential for a journey to the afterlife: Scythian graves often include the bodies of several horses (fully equipped for battle) that were sacrificed and placed with the body of their master. As terrible as that fate was for the noble steeds, such discoveries have brought a wealth of information about these ancient warriors. Ancient Scythians Were Unbeatable Archers Until the advent of personal firearms, the bow (and arrow) was the most lethal ranged weapon an individual warrior could wield, especially on horseback. And no ancient cavalry could wield bows like the Scythians. Their weapon of choice was an early composite bow, constructed not just from one long piece of wood, but of multiple components, including wood, horn and sinew, held together by a form of glue. What’s more, these were recurve bows, which were shorter and lighter than traditional bows, yet still incredibly powerful — just the weapon you’d want if you were shooting from a galloping horse. And shoot they did. The archaeological record — and the bodies of their enemies — are full of Scythian arrows. One of the most effective aspects of their battle tactics was an ability to unleash veritable storms of arrows at opposing forces. In this effort, Scythian archers were aided by a key accessory: a bowcase/quiver combo known as a gorytos, which was worn on the leg and could hold hundreds of arrows. As if that wasn’t enough, the Scythians were known to poison their arrows — just to make a point of how deadly they were.   Read More: Amazon Warrior Women of Ancient Scythia Decorative Art Mattered to the Scythians While their savagery in battle gave them a reputation as bloodthirsty barbarians, in fact, Scythians were highly sophisticated and skilled when it came to decorative arts. For centuries now, treasure-hunters and archaeologists have been uniformly impressed by the richness and detail of Scythian artifacts, especially jewelry, decorated weapons and armor, and more. Scythians also liked decorative outerwear. Excavations of burial mounds have revealed preserved garments that show evidence of embroidery, appliqué and other techniques. Read More: Prehistoric Traders Cheated Rich People With Fake Amber Jewelry Scythian metalwork was likewise varied and sophisticated, including many iron, silver and bronze works. But Scythian objects wrought in gold have always been particularly coveted, especially in Russia. The Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg, is home to possibly the largest and most valuable collection of Scythian objects. But evidently, that hoard wasn’t enough for Russia. In May of 2022, Russian forces occupying the city of Melitopol in Ukraine looted a history museum, making off with one of the country’s largest collections of rare Scythian gold. Its current whereabouts are unknown. Read More: Genetics Reveal Movements of Ancient Siberians

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