Saturday, November 05, 2005

Scythians Ethnic History


Scythians Ethnic Affiliation

The following discourse addresses the reasons for the current universal acceptance by the scientific community of the preposition that the Scythians were unambiguously Indo-European, and specifically Iranian speaking, and the methods to reach this conclusion. It does not address the attribution of the Scythians to a particular ethnic community. The acceptance of the Indo-European theory has a long history, and its history in itself is an interesting subject of study. The scholars of a number of nations were involved in the Scythian studies, because geographically, the Scythian area covers an enormous territory. The Russian politicians and scientists, who had a special interest in these studies, and the German scholars, who made decisive contributions to the subject, led the way in establishing the criteria, methods, and conclusions currently shared by the scientific community at large. Since I am more familiar with the history and attitudes in the Russian studies, I will mostly stay within the limits of the Russian science.

In pre-1700’s, the Scythians were known in the Western Europe, and from there in Russia, from the works of the ancient writers, principally Herodotus. At that time, the accepted wisdom was that the Herodotus’ Scythians were the precursors of Türks, with the Türks branching into Slavic, Mongol, Finnish, Baltic, Ugrian, and unspecified other variations. There was a millennia-long string of historical references linking Herodotus’ Scythians with the Türks, so there was no need to question this postulate. That is, until the Northern Pontic area fell into the lap of the Russian Empire, there was no archeology to contend with. And only when the kurgans and their contents became known in the West, the question of their attribution came to the attention of the Western scientists. The archeological excavations in the 19th c. showed that Herodotus and other historians faithfully recorded the specks of the history of the Eurasian peoples. The archeological excavations created a tremendous opportunity to analyze and absorb the newly found predecessors into the “We-world” of the Western Europe.

A Polish aristocrat in the service of Russia, Jan Potocki at about 1805 gave instruction to Heinrich Julius von Klaproth (1783-1835) for ethnographic journey to the recently seized N. Caucasus, who published the work "Reise in den Kaukasus und nach Georgien unternommen in den Jahren 1807 und 1808" (I-II, Halle and Berlin 1812-14); in an appendix, entitled "Kaukasische Sprachen", for the first time von Klaproth formulated a hypothesis of Scytho-Sarmatian origin of Ossetic. In his later work, "Memoire dans lequel on prouve 1'identite des Ossetes, peuplade du Caucase, avec les Alains du moyen-age" (Nouvelles annales des voyages 16, 1822, p. 243-56), von Klaproth completed the sequence Scytho-Sarmatians > Alans > Ossetes. (9)

That hypothesis was furthered by K. Zeiss with a work published in the 1837 in Munich, that suggested to identify Scythians with the Iranian-lingual tribes based on the religion, territory of Iranians and the common Scythian and Persian words (1). At that time, in the Western culture the contemporary concept of racism did not exist, it was perfectly clear that the humans are divided into superiors and inferiors, and that anything worth of attention was produced by the superior races. The inferiors could at best only approach the superiors, and in the worst case were savages. The superior art and skills of the kurgan burials, brought to the attention of the Western European scientists, were undoubtedly civilized, i.e. European. The extent of the classification was matching the erudition and mindset of the classifier (2). This trend endured in the consecutive European research. The 2000 monograph that compiles sources on the Alans, is outstanding in bringing into the scientific fold a listing of 200 sources, but in a peculiar tunnel vision it ignores obvious non-IE etymologies, while repeating the improbable dainties of count Vs. Miller in service of Russia, and V.I.Abaev in service of Russia (9, a shy tiny footnote on page 2 is all it takes to base a scientific analysis of a major work).

In the era when a peer review was not yet canonized, the flattering deductions of the urban dwelling sedentary Indo-European cabinet scientists were received with enthusiasm accorded to the reputation of the experts. There were alternate opinions, like those of K. Neumann, 1855 (3), who came to differing conclusions. The alternate opinions managed to introduce a factor of inconclusiveness in the concept, but failed to impress the scientific community into revising the upsurging concept. Some scholars hedged their opinions by qualifiers. The others dropped the shades and selected sides, joining the universal acceptance by the scientific community of the Indo-European concept.

One of the reasons that unbalanced the scales was the geographical extent of the archeological artifacts. In the 19-20 centuries, though the most prominent kurgans were concentrated in the vicinity of the Northern Pontic, the European kurgan burials were found in the area that extended from the southern desert to the forest zone in the north, and from the German lands to Volga. The organized and civilized societies they represented were not savages, i.e. could not be Mongolian, Finnish, Ugrian, Türkic, Bask, Albanian etc., but definitely the civilized Indo-European. Europe could not be inhabited by the non- Indo-Europeans, not to that extent.

The “discovery” of kurgans coincided with the discoveries in the Russian historical studies of the times. Early in the 18th century, ruler of the emerging Russian Empire, Peter I, undertook to hire the best European historians to write a Russian history. At the time, the budding Empire was a quilt of recently subjugated nations, including Slavic and foreign. The need for a unifying ideology was urgent, and so was the need for the ideological justifications of the future acquisitions. The superiority of the Slavs was an axiom, but it needed a historical validation. After a much reading into the Russian Primary Chronicles, it was re-established that the Russian ruling class descended from the Scandinavians, and the Slavic folks came from the Carpathians. V.Tatischev, M.Lomonosov, and N.Karamzin suggested that the Slavs traced back to Scythians or Sarmatians. The Scythians at that time were regarded as Turkic, and the Sarmatians as multi-ethnic Indo-Europeans. Both classifications were mostly of a speculative nature.

Today, the search for the Slavic roots has a 300 years history. Among the main autochthonous theories is the Vistula basin, Dniepr, and Carpathians. The supposed historical predecessors are Veneds and Balto-Slavs for the folks, and Scandinavians and Balto-Slavs for the ruling class. Thousands of history books and encyclopedias were published in the past 3 centuries. The fabled Solovyev history is contained in 50-some volumes. To whatever detail went the search, it stopped down at the 9th century, taking a super vague view to the time before that. Up until now, the recorded facts related to the pre-9th century Slavic history do not exist as far as the Russian historiography is concerned.

The Russian historiography cannot reconcile the record about Slavs, serving in the Atilla’s army together with his German subjects, with the coming of Ruriks to govern the Slavs. The Hunnish period lasted for 130 years, from c. 420 to c. 558, impacting the Slavic tribes. The following 250-year period of life in the Avar Kaganate from 558 to 805 also must have shaped and impacted the Slavic tribes. In the Indo-European scheme of the Russian historiography this period does not exist. Did Slavs come out more indigenous after 250 years of Avaric rule than, say, Volga Bolgars after 250 years of the Slavic rule? There is no research on the Avar period, moreover, neither the Avar nor Hunnish periods ever existed in the Slavic history, as far as the Russian historiography is concerned. The following period of the Khazarian rule, when the Eastern Slavs were members of the Khazarian Kaganate, and their Scandinavian mercenary rulers were in the service of the Khazarian state, also conveniently does not exist. Also does not exist the Bolgar period, when the Eastern Slavs were members of the Bolgarian Kaganate and its remnant Beilyks. In the Imperial period, that ended in 1917, the history of the peoples did not exist, and the history of the territories started from the time of their conquest. In the Soviet period, the contents of the official Russian history remained about the same, with added spice of civilization benefits, generosity, and friendship that the Russian conquerors showered on the subjected peoples.

In the Soviet Russia the handling of the history on a number of occasions led to a country-wide crises, when the old books had to be expediently destroyed in all libraries, homes and schools in the country, while the new versions were hurriedly written or approved or published. By the time Orwell published his “1984”, it has already happened, and many times after that. The earliest records of the historical manipulations trace back to the 1500, when the emerging Moscow kingdom clamed the Lithuanian lands. In the Imperial period, the re-creation of the history became a full-blown trade. In the Soviet period, it reached a state of an art carried by industrial methods. The re-invention of the history was always inspired by the ruling officialdom, soon permeating the whole society, when the population was shaped mostly in the primary and secondary school systems. In the later Imperial period, the local historical and archeological societies had a chance to document facts inconsistent with the official historiography. In the Soviet period, any remnants of the independent thought were eradicated, usually together with their carriers. In these conditions, a concept of a peer review was distorted to a caricature. The heavy jelly of the official historiography gripped both the reviewed and the reviewer. In most cases, the rules of behavior were not stated, they had to be understood with the guts.

In the upper echelons of the scientific establishment, a heavy handed system of pre-qualifications, tests in the politically correct subjects, and august referrals remains to ensure that only conformist scholars had the opportunity for the scientific research. The ability to research and publish is rigidly linked to the ability to conform to the correct line. This is a backbone of the Russian historical science, and it encompasses the contributory sciences of archeology, linguistics, numismatics, anthropology, culture, literature etc. In the absence of a free research, the science industry was flooded by quasi-scientific research, which became an accepted norm for a scientific carrier. In the Scythian studies, the politically correct line is the Indo-European attribution, and any personal development is possible only toiling the correct path, facts or no facts notwithstanding.

Generations of scientists of all disciplines participated in the Russian Scythian studies. Initially, the Indo-European classification of the Scythians had a weak justification, and it had to develop against the accepted beliefs based on the evidence of the contemporaries. At the same time, it was fitting well into the German and Russian nationalist agenda, providing a pedigree of traceability extending beyond the Bronze Age. In the last 160 years, which passed since 1837, was developed the linguistical and anthropological evidence necessary to convert a maverick idea into a postulate widely accepted by the scientific community.

The 1949 work of V. Abaev was a cardinal contribution to the factual material(4). The scientific value of the work is well defined by the words of the author himself, that in Scythian language "all we cannot explain with the help of Iranian, actually cannot be explained at all". Disavowing that work would send much of the Indo-European theory crushing. On the other hand, linking the glorious past of the ancient Great Power with a contemporary obscure ethnical group within the Russian multiethnic powder keg was a significant achievement by the ruling plutocracy. It was well timed with the politically correct task of the day, that is to substantiate scientifically the deportation of the number of ethnic, mostly Türkic, people from the territories conquered by the Russian Empire in the previous century. V. Abaev’s work was a living proof that from the ancient historical times the Indo-European population inhabited the Northern Pontic and Caspian territories, and the deported nations were late migrants who took possession of the territory belonging to the autochthonous population. It was published 6 years after the Russian rulers assigned to all Russian historians a task of re-writing the history, de-linking the population of the Northern Caucasus, Kama and Volga region from the ancient inhabitants, and re-associating with to the popularly hated Tatar-Mongol invaders.

About the scientific validity of the work not much can be said. Any notion of a peer review in Russia cannot be taken seriously. The obscurity of the Ossetian language, and a vacuum in the studies of its linguistic history, make it unlikely that peers will ever review the Ossetian theory. The Iranians, found to be speaking the Scythian language, are completely mum on the subject. The other significant Iranian speaking groups, like Pashtuns, are also silent. So, it is left to those Indo-European scholars of the Iranian languages to explain the etymology of the Ossetian/Iranian Scythian vocabulary, and provide the incontestable proof to the scientific community at large. And the mightily supported Indo-European theory, untested, unchallenged and un-peer reviewed, for now stands. The verdict reads "North-East Middle Iranian language". For a side observer, that should mean that a random contemporary speaker of the "North-East Middle Iranian language" should at least get a clue hearing another "North-East Middle Iranian language" speaker. Ossetians would not manage to squeeze in this category, with their 80% lexically non-IE language, and 100% phonetically, morphologically, and sintaxically non-IE language. Finns have better chances understanding Greeks.

The flow of quasi-scientific research papers linking the known Scythian vocabulary to this or that obscure language, found in some mountain valley with few speakers, still proliferates, without a chance for a second opinion due to the absence of experts in that language, or the studies of the underlying language itself. Frequently, these works tell more about the writer than about the subject of the work. I. Pyankov, for example, attributes to the Irano-Scythians the plural suffix ty/ta, evidently without having even a rudimentary acquaintance with the fact that this suffix, for example, is also a Türkic suffix. Specifically, in modern Turkish it is a place case suffix, denoting the case "where something is/has been/will be' or 'where something occurs/has occurred/will occur", and used after ch, f, h, k, p, s, sh, or t, as in 'kitapta' - in the book or 'jipte' - in the jip. So, even without the well-known uncertainty caused by the fluidity of the vowels, the linguistic argumentation is presumptuous. But I. Pyankov proceeds to classify the Scythian language as the Iranian type based on a presence in the contemporary group vocabulary of a single letter t (5). This quasi-scientific process is mirrored in the science of physical anthropology, in Russian called simply the anthropology

Scythian images are known from the earliest historical times well into the first millennia A.D. Scythians looked European. They looked enough European to qualify for the Indo-European pedigree. And from here flows their ancestry. By a reverse projection, the Afanasevo, 2500-1700 BC, and Andronovo, 1700-1200 BC, populations are swept into the Indo-European fold, creating a cradle for all Indo-Europeans and filling in the blanks for the Indo-European dissemination. True, the Scythians did not look any more Indo-European than the European Finns, Basks, Albanians, Etruscans and other patently non Indo-European inhabitants of Europe. Here the historical linguistics comes to aid. The physical anthropology shows Scythians as Caucasians, and the linguistics shows them as Indo-European Caucasians. In other words, they are Iranian Ossetians. Iranian Ossetians from Sea to shining Sea.

The archeological expeditions uncovered sufficient remains to produce detailed anthropological studies. Some remains were found frozen and in perfect condition for the scientific studies. The Russian anthropology is built on the concepts of J. Blumenbach, 1752 - 1840, who proposed a system for classifying humans into five different races based on the anatomy, and E. Hooton, 1887 – 1954, who framed it in a very descriptive format with careful measurements and anatomical details. And the super task of the Russian anthropological and archeological studies is to show the autochthony of the Indo-European and, if a slightest hint can be found, of the Slavic population in the region of the study. In the Scythian region, the silent craniums are either Mongoloids and therefore Ural-Altaics, or Caucasoids and therefore Indo-Europeans. They cannot be non-Indo-European Caucasoids. The archeological dating and cultural classification make the Caucasoid finds to speak Iranian or Slavic. Thus the anthropology supports the Indo-European theory. Even in the cases when no faithfully described artifacts indicate an Indo-Iranism, the title and preamble of the publication invariably attribute the artifacts to the Indo-Iranism.

A crucial role in the Indo-Iranian attribution is given to Veda. Everywhere, where the Caucasian remains are found, works the irrefutable logical chain of the site-artifact-Veda-Iranian language. The Caucasians are determined by their noses. A flat face produces a Mongoloid, and a flaring nose produces a Caucasian, invariably an Iranian/Ossetian speaking. An Iranian Caucasian, taking a Mongoloid wife, produces a Caucasian Iranian/Ossetian speaking male offspring, and a Mongoloid daughter of unattributable descent. The expeditions, investigating the Scythian territories, like a lasting Khoresmian Expedition, invariably discover a layer of the Caucasian Iranian speaking stock, proving over again the Ossetian nature of the Scythians. Never mind that Ammianus called the Persians subnigri. Never mind that the definitely Europoid Scythians were often depicted with thin beards (H. Schoppa 1933, 21-22). In 443 AD the Alans of Sapaudia (Lyon) showed a Mongoloid strain. Never mind individuals of the South Siberian type were among the Sarmatians at Kalinovka in the Volga region. There must be Iranian black subnigri and white subnigri, Iranian Mongoloids and Iranian South Siberians. They've got to fit the Iranian doctrine. And like in the other instances, most of the Slavic ends were frequently produced using non-Slavic people in the service of the Slavic-dominated state.

The review of the politically correct scientific half-truths and outright falsifications would not be complete without addressing the treatment of the unsuitable facts.

Time to time the life brings to light a fact that contradicts the official theory. In Russia, the facts can be disposed of by explaining them away, silencing them, ignoring them, or destroying them. One example of explaining away is the attribution of a fact to an import, like the nomadic animal art copied from the advanced Iranian/Greek/Mediterranean settled population. The silencing is best done by hiding it, like the Scythian artifacts hidden in the storage of Hermitage, to hide the splendor and skill of the population preceding the Slavic migrants. The inscriptions can be ignored, to retain the concept of the illiteracy of the nomadic population, invariably repeated in every publication. And the destruction continues on an industrial scale, some by design, some by shear negligence. Cities and kurgans are being ploughed over, records and bones destroyed, samples not analyzed, results not published, the hand written records and collections of the pre-Soviet time archeological societies lost and destroyed. Whatever are the means, the official theory remains unscathed. The former USSR and now the Russian Academy of Sciences has a long history of never acknowledging the evidence that contradicts the official stance. Historically, it was not an enviable preposition for a Russian scientist: either silence, or else.

The dissenters, who exist in all societies and in all times, had to either remain silent, or pay a heavy toll. Here again existed a circus air, when even the loyal followers could be labeled dissenters upon a turn in the official position. Like in the Imperial times, in the Soviet time some dissent always survived in a camouflaged form, masked as poetry, novels, anti anti-official assertions, and other innocently looking works. Usually the camouflage was supported by a loyal lip service in the beginning paragraphs. Not infrequently, both the august referent and the author worked in tandem disguising the true substance of the work.

The Iranian/Ossetian Scythian theory has all the traits of a politically correct theory. It is built on a thinnest foundation of an obscure language, and is not supported by the evidence and foresight connected with what is usually called a scientific theory. The cultural heritage, traceable for millennia among other peoples of the world, has not been shown to display links between the Ossetian, Pashtu, or other Iranian speaking peoples, and the details of the Scythian life described by the ancient writers. No traces, specific to the Scythian nomadism of the historical period, found their parallels in the historically documented Indo-European societies. It is well shown in the work of a prominent export on nomadism A. Khazanov(6).

The extensive Indo-European ethnology documents such cultural attributes as dress, food, drinks, conservation of produce, family relationships, housing, sanitary traditions, military traditions, societal organization, cosmological concepts, literary traditions, mythological and folk tale traditions, art, and a myriad of other traits. In many cases, the prominence of these traits far exceeds the significance of the other characteristics. For example, the Scythian mercenaries were a major, if not the only, force in the armies of a number of the states, during almost a millennia period. The Scythian warriors in the Scythian conical hats, Scythian boots, Scythian pants, on the Scythian horses and with Scythian composite bows are shown innumerable times in the historical records and became a staple image of the generic Scythian. The Ossetian ethnography of the historical period would have to come up with at least a remote echo of these mercenary military traditions wearing Ossetian conical hats, Ossetian boots, Ossetian pants, riding the Ossetian horses and with Ossetian composite bows. In the absence of such ethnological links, the Indo-European theory would remain a murky propaganda myth. The so-called universal acceptance can become a scientific concept only when the multidisciplinary evidence converges to the same conclusion.

The anthropological studies of the ethnography should have traceable, statistically significant, links between the Scythian and Indo-European populations. The genetic make-up of the populations is a powerful tool that will be used for the studies that are practically non-existent now.(7). The blood type, predominating in the Indo-European people, should be visibly present in the Scythian population(8). The absence of such studies in Russia is explained by the insufficient funds and a shortage of specialists, to the convenience of the supporters of the status quo. The anthropological aspect of the archeological research should extend beyond the fossilized nose angle criteria anthropology, to be complemented by the dental, skeletal, foramental and other telltale traits of the physical anthropology. The absence of the multidisciplinary studies, which, in the vision of Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza would include the “paleoanthropology, archeology, ecology, history, demography, sociology, cultural and physical anthropology, linguistics, toponomastics and anthroponymy”, does not give much credence to the “universal acceptance” by the scientific community of the preposition that the Scythians were unambiguously Indo-European.

The search for Indo-European roots, whether explicit or implicit, is a substantial driving force subsidizing the expensive archeological research. Without a doubt, the Sakian and Scythian studies would have been on a much smaller scale if they did not have the Indo-European connotations. The financial participation of the Western scientific organizations in many cases was the major incentive in the planning of the direction for the archeological research. It is possible that the acceptance of the alternate concept would substantially dry up the research funds available with the Indo-European preposition, depleting the field from the specialists and damaging the progress in the field. In this regard, the half-truths, misinformation, and twisted facts are a good tactic to maintain the interest in the Scythian field. So far, not a single sentence had been translated, etymologically meaningfully, using any reincarnation of the Indo-European languages. If the search for the Indo-European roots results in a conclusion truthfully proving the Indo-European theory, both the partisans of the Indo-European theory, and its opponents will benefit. And if it results in a conclusion inconsistent with the Indo-European theory, once again both the partisans of the Indo-European theory, and its opponents will benefit.


(1) A. Dovatur, Narody nashei strany v “Istorii” Gerodota (People of our state in the History by Herodotus), 1982

(2) re K.Mullenchoff, see M. Zakiev, Problems Of The History And Language, 1995

(3) K.Neumann, Die Hellene im Skythenlande (Berlin, 1855), Mongolian hypothesis

(4) V.I.Abaev Ossetian language and folklore. M. L. 1949

(5)I. Pyiankov, The Ethnicity Of The Sakas (Scythians),

(6) A.Khazanov, Nomads and the Outside World, Cambridge University Press, 1984

(7) (Sforza)


(9) Agusti Alemany, Sources On The Alans. Critical Compilation, 2000


Additional Literature

Kuklina I.V., 1985. Scythian ethnography in the antique sources. L.
Lyzlov А., 1787. Scythian history, composed and written in the year 1692. M.
Semenov-Zuser S.A., 1947. Scythian problematics in the Russian science // Attempt in the historiography of the Scythians. Ch. 1. Kharkov.

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I live in Los Angeles and I work with computer related jobs. I speak 4 languages. I am married to a Persian girl who is from a region where the Persian Empire was based.