Ancient genomes reveal insights into horse-riding Scythian warriors

An aerial view of Hun-Xianbi culture burials. Both horses and warriors can be identified. Photo: Zainolla Samashev

The ancient Greek, Roman, Persian and Chinese empires all left multiple accounts of the customs and practices of the feared horse warriors that came from the interior lands of Eurasia.

They were the Scythians, whose horse-riding exploits became the stuff of legends.

Still, despite this important evidence from external sources, little is known about Scythian history.

They did not have a written language.

Indeed, scientists are still uncertain about the language or languages they spoke, where they came from, and the extent to which the various cultures that spread across such a huge area were related.

A new study published in the journal Science Advances analyzes genome-wide data for 111 ancient individuals spanning the Central Asian Steppe from the first millennia BCE and CE.

The results reveal new insights into the genetic events associated with the origins, development and decline of the Scythians.

The Scythians have been revealed as a multitude of Iron Age cultures who ruled the Eurasian steppe.

They played a major role in Eurasian history, exerting major influences on the cultures of their powerful neighbors, spreading new technologies such as saddles and other improvements for horse riding.

The fresh research by an international team of geneticists, anthropologists and archeologists, led by scientists from the Archaeogenetics Department of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, targeted ancient genomes from key Scythian and non-Scythian archaeological cultures of the Central Asian steppe.

The results of their analysis reveal that substantial genetic turnovers were associated with the decline of the long-lasting Bronze Age sedentary groups and the rise of Scythian nomad cultures in the Iron Age.

Their findings show that, following the relatively homogenous ancestry of the late Bronze Age herders, at the turn of the first millennium BCE, influxes from the east, west and south into the steppe formed new admixed gene pools.

Maps visualizing the main findings of the research. Image: © Gnecchi-Rusconi, et al., 2021

The study goes even further, identifying at least two main sources of origin for the nomadic Iron Age groups.

An eastern source likely originated from populations in the Altai Mountains that, during the course of the Iron Age, spread west and south, admixing as they moved.

These genetic results match with the timing and locations found in the archeological record and suggest an expansion of populations from the Altai area, where the earliest Scythian burials are found, connecting different renowned cultures such as the Saka, the Tasmola and the Pazyryk found in southern, central and eastern Kazakhstan respectively.

Surprisingly, the groups located in the western Ural Mountains descend from a second separate, but simultaneous source.

Contrary to the eastern case, this western gene pool, characteristic of the early Sauromatian-Sarmatian cultures, remained largely consistent through the westward spread of the Sarmatian cultures from the Urals into the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

The study also covers the transition period after the Iron Age, revealing new genetic turnovers and admixture events.

These events intensified at the turn of the first millennium CE, concurrent with the decline and then disappearance of the Scythian cultures in the Central Steppe.

In this case, the new far eastern Eurasian influx is plausibly associated with the spread of the nomad empires of the Eastern steppe in the first centuries CE, such as the Xiongnu and Xianbei confederations, as well as minor influxes from Iranian sources likely linked to the expansion of Persian-related civilization from the south.

Although many of the open questions on the history of the Scythians cannot be solved by ancient DNA alone, this study demonstrates how much the populations of Eurasia have changed and intermixed through time. Future studies should continue to explore the dynamics of these trans-Eurasian connections by covering different periods and geographic regions, revealing the history of connections between west, central and east Eurasia in the remote past and their genetic legacy in present-day Eurasian populations.

Gnecchi-Ruscone GA, Khussainova E, Kahbatkyzy N, et al. Ancient genomic time transect from the Central Asian Steppe unravels the history of the Scythians. Sci Adv. 2021;7(13):eabe4414. doi:10.1126/sciadv.abe4414.

The study was published under a Creative Commons License.

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