Long Known as Nomads, Scythians May Have Been Solidly Sedentary

Long Known as Nomads, Scythians May Have Been Solidly Sedentary
An Etruscan statue of a Scythian mounted archer from the early 5th century BCE. (Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fair Use)

Popularised by myth and historical accounts as horse-riding warrior nomads of the Eurasian steppe, the true story of the Scythians (pronounced Sith-ian) may be more complicated. New research published in the journal PLOS One describes the likely range and diets of Scythians buried across a number of sites in modern Ukraine, which suggest that the Iron Age groups may not have moved quite as much as previously thought.

“We really wanted to try to understand mobility during the Iron Age; specifically among Scythian era communities,” Alicia Ventresca Miller, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Michigan, said in a phone call. “There’s so much emphasis on these long distance interactions, potentially, from where we’re working in the Pontic steppe all the way across the Eurasian steppe into even the Altai Mountains.”

To do this, Ventresca Miller’s team used tooth enamel from Scythian times in sites across Ukraine. Embedded in that enamel were elemental isotopes that showed what individuals were eating, as well as what sort of soil those foods were rooted in or grazed on. Carbon isotopes, for example, helped the authors distinguish wheat and barley consumption from millet consumption, the latter being a dietary staple among proto-urban populations. Strontium values in different soils, picked up in the plants, helped indicate the regions where that food came from. Taken together, these measurements allowed the research team to relegate individuals to approximate regions where they potentially originated.

The team tested more than 50 Scythian-era individuals from three different sites. Individuals at one site had significant millet consumption, one moderate, and the other not as much. Individuals that seemed to have been more mobile consumed less millet, indicative of their not having time to settle down and grow such crops.

At one site, non-local individuals were have found to come from within about 24 kilometres of their burial site or from more than 240 kilometres away, while three local individuals tested likely were involved in landscape use within 24 km of the site. At another site, several individuals were moving locally, no farther than 10 kilometres from the site. The team defined long distances as individuals travelling more than about 100 kilometres, and found that a small percentage of the total 56 tested were probably moving so extensively.

“It has been commonplace since ancient to medieval times to broadly group populations of the Eurasian steppe as ‘Scythians’ and to emphasise the most distinctive aspect of their culture (nomadism), which contrasted with the settled lifestyle of the people around them,” Iosif Lazaridus, a geneticist at Harvard University who was not involved in the study, said in an email. “All in all, this paper provides a lot of new data and food for thought about what must have been a very complex society which is often unjustly stereotyped as ‘steppe nomads.’”

Lazaridus added that in the future, it’d be interesting to compare mobility patterns of different Scythian individuals with genetic ancestry patterns; migration of these groups happened over centuries, and different populations may have settled or moved at different times.

Ventresca Miller said that she expected about half of the individuals her team analysed to be highly mobile, but the number her team came up with was an even slimmer segment of the tested individuals. Going forward, she said, greater sample sizes would be useful in painting the picture of Scythian movement in greater detail.

“I’m hoping that this sort of reinforces our previous findings and shows people that yes, Scythian era individuals do seem to be moving longer distances than people in previous periods,” Ventresca Miller said. “But it’s very few people that are actually moving these long distances.”