1. What is a Scythian?
2. Scythian culture
— 2.1. Nomadism
— 2.2. Equestrianism
— 2.3. Warfare
— 2.4. Etymology
— 2.5. Religion and social structure
— 2.6. Art
— 2.7. Global influence
3. Ethnogenesis: Where did they come from?
4. Genetics: How diverse were the Scythians?
5. Phenotypes: What did the Scythians look like?
— 5.1. Ancient depictions
— 5.1. Ancient descriptions
— 5.3. Modern populations
1. What is a Scythian?
The Scythian Cultures were a broad collection of nomadic ethnic groups that inhabited the Eurasian steppe during the Iron Age and Classical Antiquity. They derive their name from the ‘True Scythians’ of the Pontic Caspian Steppe (located in modern Ukraine and Russia). However, their territorial range spanned from the Pannonian Basin in Europe, to the Ordos Loop in China, slightly to the west of Beijing. Various Scythian groups also expanded southwards, establishing kingdoms in the Middle East, Iran, and India.
The Scythian Cultures were somewhat racially diverse, due to their vast territorial range, but united by common descent (Yamnaya-related ancestry), languages (East Iranian dialects), and cultural practices, including their highly distinctive animal art style. They could be described as a broad ethnic continuum.
A comparison of Scythian art from Ordos in China (left) and Eastern Europe (right):
The Scythian Cultures were loosely divided into two culturally and ethnically distinct subgroups: Western Scythians and Eastern Scythians. The latter was significantly more racially heterogeneous, with higher levels of East Asian ancestry. Major Scythian ethnic groups include the Cimmerians (who you may know from the Conan the Barbarian movie), Pontic Scythians, and Sarmatians in the West, and the Sakas and Scytho-Siberians in the east, who inhabited Central Asia and Siberia, respectively. Non-Iranic peoples (Slavs, Balts, Finns, etc.) who dwelled in the forests to the north of the Eurasian steppe also belonged to the broader Scythian cultural horizon.
2. Scythian culture
As the Scythians were not literate, our knowledge of their culture is entirely reliant upon non-Scythian primary sources and archaeological evidence. For example, the Scythians constructed vast burial mounds for their dead (also known as kurgans, barrows, or tumuli) in the typical Indo-European style, which contain an array of grave goods, including art, religious items, and weaponry. Scythian cultures are generally characterized by the ‘Scythian triad’, consisting of similar styles of weapons, horse equipment, and art.
Generally speaking, Scythian peoples lived nomadic pastoralist lifestyles, similar to those of their steppe-based Proto-Indo-European ancestors. However, the Scythians were far more equestrian than previous steppe peoples. According to the Hippocratic Corpus (4th C. BC), “the Scyths… have no houses but live in wagons. These are very small with four wheels. Others with six wheels are covered with felt; such wagons are employed like houses, in twos or threes and provide shelter from rain and wind… The women and children live in these wagons, but the men always remain on horseback.”
Scythians were responsible for numerous advancements in horse rearing and riding, including the invention of the saddle. Their horses were healthy and well cared for, selected for strength and athleticism. However, they were not inbred, indicating that the Scythians did not practice artificial selective breeding — or if they did, then they took care to avoid inbreeding. Horses played a vital role in the Scythian religion and their funerary rituals often featured massive horse sacrifices, with steeds dressed in elaborate ceremonial regalia, complete with ornate headpieces and jewelry. One Scythian burial found at the modern Circassian settlement of Ulsky contained more than 400 sacrificed horses.
Artistic reconstruction of a Scytho-Siberian belonging to the Pazyryk Culture:
Generally speaking, the Scythians were warlike and militarily aggressive peoples, infamous throughout the ancient world for their advanced mounted and guerilla warfare strategies, which many classical authors regarded as their defining characteristics. They were particularly renowned for horse archery techniques, using innovative composite bow technology to rain torrents of arrows down upon their enemies. In hand-to-hand combat, Scythians favored classic Indo-European weapons: Battle axes and war hammers, which they called ‘sagaris.’ The Scythians evaded attacks on their homelands by retreating into the endless expanse of the steppes, wearing down their adversaries in wars of attrition. In his work Histories (4th C. BC), Herodotus wrote: “None who attacks them can escape, and none can catch them if they desire not to be found. […] For when men have no established cities or fortresses, but all are house-bearers and mounted archers, living not by tilling the soil but by cattle-rearing and carrying their dwellings on wagons, how should these not be invincible and unapproachable?”
The Pontic Scythians’ ethnonym, Skuδa (skuda/skula), roughly translates to “archer” and may derive from the Proto-Indo-European term ‘(s)kewd-‘ meaning “to shoot.” They were known as the Skúthēs to the Greeks, Skudra to the Old Persians, Aškūza to the Akkadians, and Ashkenaz to the Hebrews. During the Middle Ages, many “northern barbarians” of Europe were incorrectly described as “Scythians,” likely due to numerous cultural and phenotypic similarities. This included the Slavic and Germanic peoples, from whom the ‘Ashkenazi’ Jews acquired their name.
2.5. Religion and social structure
As with most Indo-European cultures, Scythian societies were divided into three social castes: Priests, warriors, and peasants. This system — known as the Indo-European Tripartite Ideology and first identified by the French mythographer Georges Dumézil — was reflected in the Scythian’s mythology and cosmology. According to Herodotus, the Scythians’ origin myth was as follows:
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.
The peasantry is symbolized by the plow and yoke, the priests by the cup (or ritual goblet), and warriors by the battle-axe.
The Scythians are believed to have practiced an ancient form of Indo-Iranian paganism that predated the West Iranian conversion to Zoroastrianism. Their pantheon was similar to all other Indo-European religions. For example, the chief Scythian god was named Papaios, which is cognate with Roman Iūpiter, Greek Zeus Patēr, Indo-Aryan Dyáuṣpitṛ́, Anatolian Tiyaz papaz, and so on. These gods ultimately derive from the head of the Proto-Indo-European pantheon: Dyḗus ph₂tḗr (“Sky Father”). Interestingly, Herodotus claimed that the Scythians only constructed physical monuments (statues, altars, temples, etc.) to their equivalent of Ares, the Greek god of war.
A Pontic Scythian husband and wife burial from Ukraine:
Today, the Scythians are best known for their art, which easily rivals the craftsmanship and quality of contemporary works. It features intricate and highly stylized animal figures, often depicting scenes of combat between three animal ‘castes’: Birds, predators, and prey. Scythians exchanged artistic influence with a huge range of cultures across Eurasia, including the ancient Greeks, Persians, and Chinese, and Scythian-inspired ‘Animal Style’ art was popular among the Celtic and Germanic peoples of Europe during the Migration Period (300-800 AD) when Europe was invaded by various steppe populations. Alongside crafting beautiful artifacts, the Scythians also treated their own bodies as works of art, decorating them with a plethora of tattoos. The art of an ethnic group is often the best expression of its character and the Scythians’ art tells us that they were vibrant and proud peoples, deeply connected to the natural world around them.
2.7. Global influence
For centuries, an uninterrupted network of Scythian tribes spanned from Eastern Europe to China. They played a key role in the Silk Road and their cultural influences can be found throughout the entirety of Eurasia, as far east as Japan, and as far west as Ireland. Many Eurasian cultural traditions were influenced by Scythian religion and mythology, including those of the Slavic, Hunnic, Turkic, and Siberian peoples, many of whom are at least partially descended from Scythian peoples. Scholars have even theorized that the ruling dynasty of the Turkic Göktürk khaganate, known as the Ashina clan, was of Scythian origin.
Perhaps the most interesting examples of Scythian influence are those upon the far-east. For example, the Kofun Period (250-538 AD) in Japan, sometimes described as the “mysterious century,” saw the introduction of numerous stereotypically Indo-European cultural elements, including kurgan burial mounds, horses, and mounted archery (which became an honored tradition among the samurai). Kofun Period art was influenced by various Iranic peoples but the Scythians in particular are believed to have influenced the Japanese aristocratic system. Kofun period Japan is renowned for its high rates of migration from mainland East Asia. So, these remarkable cultural similarities may have been transmitted secondhand via Chinese or Korean migrants, who were also influenced by Scythian cultures. However, some historians have suggested that the powerful Kofun kingdom of Kibi may have been founded by Scythians themselves. See Victor Mair’s Sino-Platonic Papers for more information.
3. Ethnogenesis: Where did the Scythians originate?
The Scythian ethnogenesis began with Iranic-speaking Northern Europeans migrating eastwards across the Eurasian steppe. They encountered and intermixed with its various native inhabitants, including West Siberian Hunter-Gatherers (who were Caucasoid), East Asian Siberians (who were not Caucasoid), and the native Iranians of the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) or Oxus Civilization.
Scythian cultural practices appear to have originated among the Eastern Scythians as a result of East Asian Siberian influence and rapidly spread westward across the Eurasian steppe. This theory is corroborated by genetic, archaeological, and historical evidence. Firstly, there is clear east-to-west geneflow among the Scythian cultures, with Scythians as far west as the Pannonian Basin having minor East Asian ancestry. Secondly, the earliest Scythian-style kurgans are located north of Mongolia, while Animal Style art is first attested along the Yenisei River in eastern Siberia. Finally, according to Herodotus, the Pontic Scythians originated to the east of the Volga River, near the Ural Mountains, but were forced to migrate west onto the pontic steppe by the Sakas, who invaded their territory from the east.
Eastern Scythian ethnogenesis [colorized]:
4. Genetics: How diverse were the Scythians?
Scythian ancestry across the entire Eurasian steppe was comprised of four main genetic components:
- Bronze Age Northern European ancestry (aka “Steppe_MLBA”)
- East Asian ancestry of Siberian origin
- West-Siberian-Hunter-Gatherer-related ancestry (which was ~80% Ancient North Eurasian)
- BMAC native Iranian farmer ancestry (not to be confused with the Iranic-speaking Indo-Europeans who conquered them)
The admixture analysis below features population averages of the major Scythian ethnic clusters. As you can see, there is significantly more genetic diversity among the Eastern Scythians.
5. Phenotypes: What did the Scythians look like?
5.1. Ancient descriptions
Ancient sources describe Scythian phenotypes very consistently, with historians from Rome to China observing the same five distinguishing characteristics: 1. The Scythians were unusually tall, 2. powerfully built, 3. had light eyes (blue and green), 4. light hair (red and blond), and 5. light skin (variously described as white, fair, and ruddy or reddish-white).
[Too many sources to list individually]:
However, some primary sources do indicate that there was some racial diversity among the Scythian Cultures. For example, Herodotus claimed that the Agrippaeans — who lived to the north of the Scythians, practiced a similar culture, and wore similar attire — did not speak an Iranic language, had “flat noses,” and that their men and women were both “bald from birth.” He was likely describing an East Asian population, who may have seemed “bald” in comparison to the hairy, bearded Scythians.
5.2. Ancient depictions
Scythians are consistently depicted with European or Caucasoid phenotypes in ancient artwork.
- Note: This may be sampling bias, but I am yet to discover an ancient depiction of a Scythian that displayed any East Asian characteristics whatsoever, including depictions of Eastern Scythians, such as the Sakas. This is not to say that such individuals did not exist among the Scythian cultures, because they certainly did.
A modern artist’s impression of Western Scythians:
5.3. Closest related modern populations
The large image below provides a more detailed breakdown of each major ethnic cluster and shows their top ten closest related modern populations.
- The Scythians proper were closely related to modern Europeans (near-identical, in fact).
- The Sarmatians, Cimmerians, Tagar, and Tian Shan Sakas were most closely related to Russians, Finnic peoples (e.g. Udmurts and Mordvins), and Pamiri Tajiks.
- The Kazakh Sakas and Pazyryk were most similar to modern Central Asians, such as Uzbeks and Bashkirs.
Perhaps we can divide these groups into Western, Central, and Eastern Scythians.
Phenotypes do not align perfectly with genetic ancestry, but the aforementioned modern populations may give us a vague idea of how the average Scythian looked — maybe something like an Udmurt crossed between a Pamiri? In other words, a Northern European with minor East Asian and Middle Eastern admixture.
This is an old unpublished article I found. Unfortunately, I lost the list of sources I used. Genetics papers, books, articles – everything. One genetic study I remember was ‘137 ancient human genomes from across the Eurasian steppe.’ It’s free to read online, just look up the title. Anyway, hope you liked the article and learned something interesting.