Tuesday 30 April 2024

The Scythian Homeland

 A series of articles exploring claims that the prototypes of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table as well as the quest for the Grail evolved in the Iranian-speaking people of the Eurasian steppe  known as Sarmatians.1
More recently it is claimed that the descendants of the Alans [an ancient and medieval Iranic nomadic pastoral people of the North Caucasus, related to the Sarmatians] had a tendency "for telling stories about cups, the importance of cups in the Alanic religion, and the extent of Alanic influence in the church of Gaul" suggests that the French poet Robert de Boron may have had an Alanic source for his Grail material, with the Grail Hallows being the treasure taken from the Temple of Solomon by the Romans in 70 AD.2

Man and Horse on the Eurasian steppe
To actually pinpoint the date when man first jumped on the back of horse and rode it is impossible to determine. However, at same point in time people of the Eurasian steppe suddenly became more mobile, managing larger herds, travelling longer distances in a shorter time. This sudden change was only possible with the domestication of the horse, a transformation which enabled the transition to full nomadism across the steppe. Accordingly, the horse became the most esteemed and valued of animals of the steppe people which saw the emergence of a horse cult as witnessed by mass horse burials interred in the Royal burials of the Scythian period.3

The earliest archaeological evidence for domestication of the horse, bred from the wild Przewalski’s horse (E.przewalskii), emerges around six thousand years ago in the western Eurasian steppe north of the Black Sea from Ukraine to Kazakhstan. This is somewhat later than domestication of the likes of sheep, goat and cattle.4

Przewalski’s horse, also known as the ‘takhi’ or Mongolian wild horse, is an endangered species today that became extinct in the wild but since the 1990s has been reintroduced to its native lands in Mongolia and Central Asia. Genetic analyses indicates that Przewalski's horse is not derived from modern domestic horses but a remnant wild population. Domestication does not appear to be a single event with the modern horse showing diverse ancestry from a mixture of ancient maternal lineages from different geographic areas. 

The Botai Culture
The prehistoric Copper Age Botai culture (3700–3100 BCE) of northern Central Asia was named after the settlement of Botai in modern northern Kazakhstan. The Botai culture has two other large sites: Krasnyi Yar, and Vasilkovka. The main settlement at Botai has been partly eroded by the Imanburlyq river, a tributary of the Ishim, however, around 153 pit-shouses have been identified.

The Botai culture emerged with the transition from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle with a variety of game to a sedentary pastoralists lifestyle with a diet based mainly on horse meat.

A staggering 300,000 or more bone fragments, over 90% of which were derived from horses, have been identified at the main settlement. The horse bones displayed a multitude of cut and chop marks indicating the Botai were clearly consuming horsemeat – and in some quantity.

The heads of sacrificed horses were placed in pits around the perimeters of houses, facing north-east or south-east, toward the direction of the rising sun at spring and autumn. At Botai canine remains are often found with those of equids in sacrificial pits, suggesting perhaps a close working relationship in life. The dog skulls, or even whole bodies, were buried in paired pits just outside houses on the west or southwest side of the dwelling.  The association of paired canines guarding the west is common to many ancient Indo-European cultures.5

Evidence of damage to dentition in horses commonly linked with the use of bridle mouthpieces, or “bit wear”, taken together with the extraordinary equid assemblage has been presented in the argument for Botai as the birthplace of horse domestication in the 4th millennium BC.

However, recent archaeogenetic analyses has revealed that horse remains from Botai are the wild Przewalski’s horse (E.przewalskii), not modern domesticates (E.caballus), warranting re-evaluation of evidence for domestication. Furthermore, when compared with wild Pleistocene equids in North America a study concluded that the damage observed in Botai horse teeth (assumed bit wear) is likely generated by natural disturbances in dental development and wear, rather than through contact with bridle equipment.6

Not all agree and the debate for horse domestication at Botai is yet to be concluded.7

However, what is clear is that the Botai represent a dramatic shift in lifestyle on the steppe that sprung from the arrival of domesticated horses. Yet, it is argued that this change appears mature rather than sudden; therefore it is suggested that the horse was domesticated elsewhere, probably Ukraine or western Russia, and was then introduced into this region.8

The earliest unambiguously managed specimens of the domestic horse, E.caballus, originate from the Sintashta culture in the Black Sea steppes and the Trans-Ural region of Russia, Kazakshtan, and Ukraine, where paired horse burials and partial remains of chariots can be found dating to the early decades of the 2nd millennium BC.

The Bronze Age Sintashta culture, named after the fortified site in Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia, stretched from the east of the southern Ural Mountains across the northern Eurasian steppe (north Kazakhstan) and is thought to represent an eastward migration of peoples from the Corded Ware culture. The area shows extensive evidence of copper mining indicating the main industry was metalworking.

Here, over three quarters (77%) of Sintashta burials had evidence of animal sacrifice, especially horses, some burials contained the remains of horse dawn chariots - the earliest recorded in the world. This seems to have been a development from the wagon burials of the earlier Yamnaya culture.9

In the Late Bronze Age the nomadic peoples of the steppe can be divided into two broad cultural complexes, the Srubnaya who occupied the Pontic-Caspian steppe and the Andronovo in Central Asia. The Srubnaya culture extended from the Ural Mountains to the Sea of Azov in the west, while the Andronovo culture occupied the region from the Ural Mountains to the Altai-Sayan Mountains at the far eastern end of the Central Asian steppe where modern Kazakhstan borders Russia, China and Mongolia.

Named from a village in the Minusinsk Basin in the Altai-Sayan Mountains where the first burial was excavated in 1914, the Andonovo culture (1750-1400 BC) seems to have grown out of the two earlier cultures, Srubnaya and Sintashta, displaying a cultural continuity with no requirement for displacement by an influx of new people. Around 1400 BC, toward the end of the Bronze Age, a new culture evolved out of the Andonovo in south Siberia; this new culture was named after a cemetery site by the Karasuk river. 

The Scythian Homeland
The Minusinsk Basin is an area of elevated steppe surrounded by mountains, the eastern Sayan to the north, the western Sayan to the south and the Kuznetsky Alatau and Abakan ranges to the west. The basin was formed by the upper reaches of the Yenisei River but also includes the Chulym River, a tributary of the Ob. The the fifth-longest river in the world, the Yenisei the largest to drain into the Arctic Ocean. The mountain hollow known as the Minusinsk Basin was a fertile environment protected by mountains, an obvious attraction for settlement. The region has experienced continuous settlement from the Andronovo period to the succeeding Karasuk, a culture that lasted from the 14th century BC to the middle of the 9th century BC

The transition from the Andronovo to Karasuk cultures was a gradual change with many traditions continuing in to the later period. Cultural development coincided with climate change which moved toward to a more humid and cooler climate which led to much lusher vegetation in the basin. This in turn provided extended grazing areas resulting in increased flocks and herds and seasonal transhumance with sheep and goats being moved from lowland steppe to fatten on mountain pastures. This directly led to a requirement for a greater number of horses to manage these flocks and herds. Evidence for increased horsemanship is reflected in the number of three-holed bone side-pieces from the bridle which appear in the archaeological record of the Karasuk period.

The increase in the available food stock lead to a steep increase in population, with estimates suggesting a tenfold increase over a five-hundred year period. It is at this time that a more hierarchical social structure developed as witnessed by the construction of elaborate tombs. The elite were buried in stone-built cists set in large circular burial enclosures up to 100m in diameter.

Situated in relative isolation, with fertile pastures and favourable climate, the Minusinsk Basin provided a microcosm of change in and around the Altai-Sayan Mountains in the Final Bronze Age (c.1200-850 BC). Other regions of the steppe, such as the isolated mountain valleys of nearby eastern Kazakhstan, experienced similar cultural developments.

The main Scythian-related archaeological sites of south Siberia
(Warwick Ball)

While the Minusinsk Basin was experiencing a dramatic increase in population, climate change across Eurasia had varied effects in different regions. On the Pontic steppe conditions became much drier in the 11th century resulting in a fall in the level of the Black Sea and a significant shift of the northern boundary of the steppe zone. Population declined, estimated, possibly, by as much as a tenfold reduction from the 14th century BC. This resulted in some people, such as the Srubnaya culture that occupied the region east of the river Don, and the Belozerka culture between the Don and the Danube, abandoning the steppe and moving to settlements on river valleys and the coastal region. 

The Tagar Culture
The unique upland environment of the Minusinsk Basin accelerated cultural developments. Pollen samples have shown that the climate of the Tuva region, which included the Minusinsk Basin, changed around the 9th century. The region experienced a rise in temperature and an increase in humidity resulting in improved grazing land and increased population. Economic and social changes during this time saw the emergence of a very different society out of the long-established Karasuk culture; the emergence of the Tagar culture saw horse riding elites start to dominate life and change the course of history.

Most of the archaeological data we have on the Tagar culture comes from their Funerary monuments, burial mounds known as kurgans. In the preceding Karasuk period burials were usually placed in stone cists, whereas in the early Tagar period burials were placed in rectangular pits within a square enclosure bounded by stone slabs. These were soon replaced with log-lined chambers and roofed with multiple log layers. 

Over time the burial mounds became larger to accommodate a larger number of burials within the mound. By the 6th century BC the burial mounds had become ever more elaborate as demonstrated in the Salbyk Valley in the centre of the Minusink Basin where barrows of about 20m in height are located. The Bolshoi Salbykskii kurgan reached 11m in height. The enclosure wall contained massive sandstone slabs, weighing around 30-50 tonnes each, set vertically at 6m high. These huge megaliths have been sourced to an ancient quarry at Kyzyl-Khaya mountain, 16 km away, a feat similar to the transportation of the huge sarsens at Stonehenge.10

The grave goods found in the Tagar kurgans provide evidence of skilled bronze casting, a tradition rooted in the Late Bronze Age. Artefacts buried with the deceased, presumably to accompany them to the afterlife, included weapons such as bows and bronze arrow heads, bronze daggers and bronze battleaxes. Horse gear was prominent, the bone side-pieces on horse bridles of the Karasuk period, as noted above, were now made of brass demonstrating advancing metalworking skills.  When combined with the many rock carvings depicting horses, the amount of horse gear found in these burials confirms that the horse played a significant role in Tagar culture, providing milk, meat and enhanced mobility. The value of the horse continued to grow among steppe cultures reaching what can only be described as cult status as we shall see.

Along with weapons and horse gear, animal art completes the so-called 'Scythian Triad' found in kurgans across the steppe and the Tagar culture is no exception. Animals cast in bronze in stylistic form are found throughout the burial mounds of the Minusinsk Basin and include felines, argali sheep standing in distinctive pose with feet together and recurved horns, recumbent deer with raised head and antlers splayed out behind with feet tucked under the body, less often are horses, boars and birds. Often these animals are found as petroglyphs on the stone slabs retaining the burial mounds.11

The earliest form of this kind of animal art, termed ‘Scythian-Siberian animal art’, is found on the so-called deer stones, deer motifs carved on standing stones in the Sayan and Altai mountains, stretching into northern Mongolia, where they have been dated to the Final Bronze Age, c.1300-700 BC. As with the Siberian Ice Princess, a shamanistic belief system is given as an interpretation. Significantly, this confirms that the stylistic animal art also found in kurgans of the Pontic steppe originated in the Bronze Age culture of the Altai-Sayan Mountains and quickly spread westward across the steppe. 

Notes & References
1.  C. Scott Littleton & Ann C. Thomas, The Sarmatian Connection: New Light on the Origin of the Arthurian and Holy Grail Legends, The Journal of American Folklore , Jan. - Mar., 1978, Vol. 91, No. 359 (Jan. - Mar., 1978), pp. 513-527,
2. C. Scott Littleton & Linda A. Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot,  Garland, (Revised Edition) 2000, The Alans and the Grail, p.233.
3. Warwick Ball, The Eurasian Steppe, Edinburgh University Press, p.25.
4. Ibid.
5. Sandra Olsen, The Early Horse Herders of Botai, University of Kansas
6. Taylor, W.T.T., Barrón-Ortiz, C.I. Rethinking the evidence for early horse domestication at Botai. Sci Rep 11, 7440 (2021). 
7. Rebuttal of Taylor and Barrón-Ortiz 2021 Rethinking the evidence for early horse domestication at Botai Outram, A; Bendrey, R; Evershed, RP; et al. Date: 28 July 2021 (excerpt):
"Taylor and Barrón-Ortiz (2021) present a reconsideration of the evidence for early horse husbandry in the Eneolithic Botai Culture of Northern Kazakhstan. However, their critique misrepresents key methodologies applied in the original analyses, demonstrates fundamental scientific misunderstanding of the stable isotopic evidence, omits key details about recent proteomic evidence and underplays or ignores a raft of other evidential lines. This rebuttal paper addresses these points. Additionally, the only primary evidence presented in Taylor and Barrón-Ortiz (2021), relating tooth wear patterns in North American wild horses, if correctly presented, adds more empirical weight to the conclusion that Botai-type wear patterns are only seen in bitted animals."
8. Sandra Olsen, The Early Horse Herders of Botai.
9. Warwick Ball, p.56.
10. Leonid Sergeevich Marsadolov, The Great Salbyk Barrow in Siberia, Archaeoastronomy and Ancient Technologies 2014, 2(2), pp.59-65.
11. Barry Cunliffe, The Scythians, Oxford University Press, 2021, pp.78-95.

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