Scythians in Syberia

Łukasz Oleszczak

The Siberian roots of the Scythian culture

The text is a part of the authors doctorate Northern Altai in the Early Iron Age (Jagiellonian University, Cracow, 2017).

Turan-Uyuk Valley – the Siberian Valley of Kings
Turan-Uyuk Valley – the Siberian Valley of Kings

Southern Siberia was a region of particular importance in the Proto-Scythian period of the Great Steppe civilisations’ history. Its mountain areas – the Altai, the Sayan (Tuva included), the Minusinsk Valley – were the cradle of Scythian-type cultures, which in the Early Iron Age dominated vast Eurasian steppes. Historical process was tightly linked with climate. Tuva was sparsely inhabited in the Bronze Age, because at the close of the Subboreal period it was nearly a semi-desert territory, and the same holds true for the Minusinsk Valley adjoining Tuva from the north (Боковенко et al. 2010, 117; van Geel et al. 2004, 53). Patches of forest could be found only high in the mountains (Зайцева et al. 2010, 82). The conditions in the steppe regions of Southern Siberia were only insignificantly better. Local communities were forced to continuously search for new areas to maintain their livestock, which at the turn of the Bronze and Iron Ages made mobile herding the only viable strategy of subsistence over vast part of Siberian and East European steppes. With the onset of the Subatlantic period (around the middle of the 9th century BC) came a fluctuation in climate, probably caused by reduction of solar activity (van Geel et al. 2004). Climate changed significantly towards more humid and cold one. These changes had detectable impact on Eurasian steppes as well. In much of the steppe area, at the close of the Subboreal period marked by very harsh, dry climate with negative water balance, this climate shift was a positive stimulus, changing the arid, nearly semi-desert step in an area much more favourable for animal herding. Climate-related factors in Subatlantic period may have been responsible for the rise and spread of the Scythian model of culture. On the other hand, it has been noted (Молодин 2010, Хохоровски 2011), that the same climate transformations created unfavorable conditions in forest and forest-steppe zone, especially in regions with well-developed hydrological network. This resulted in a deficit of natural ecological niches in the immediate neighborhood of the steppes, and triggered intense migrations of nomadic tribes (Хохоровски 2011, 331-333). The west was a natural direction of migration for the nomads, since the north and east did not offer conditions favourable for mobile herding. However, movement to the south also promised certain benefits. Admittedly, there were barriers in the form of mountain ranges difficult to cross, such as the mighty mountains of Sayan and Altai, and the Pamir and Tien-Shan further to the west. Nevertheless, the northern approaches to this mountains, and vast valleys of mountain rivers, were areas where herds could be relatively easily grazed. Highly developed civilisations of China and Central Asia beyond these mountains were surely another attracting factor. Contacts with these civilisations were surely established by the beginning of the Early Iron Age, and cultural impulses from northern China and southeastern Kazakhstan influenced the genesis of South Siberian communities (cf. e.g. Богданов 2011, Чугунов 2014).

Kurgan Arzhan-2
Kurgan Arzhan-2 in the Turan-Uyuk Valley

Beyond any doubt, the most spectacular discoveries linked with the early nomads of Eurasia and Proto-Scythian culture were made in Tuva, in the Turan-Uyuk Valley. It is in this region where a huge Proto- Scythian barrow of Arzhan-1 was explored (M.P. Griaznov’s and M.H. Mannay-Ool research of 1970-1974). The barrow is also unique in terms of its grave inventory, which represents a rich spectrum of material culture, finding no parallels or possible predecessors in Tuva. This cultural model appears suddenly, without a cultural background that could explain such an advanced and rich material culture, and with no evidence for social structure required for creating such a monumental tomb – or in fact even justify the need to erect it. It seems to raise no doubt that the individual buried in the barrow played an important social role among early nomads, and his political influence possibly reached even beyond Tuva; the Arzhan chieftain may have exerted authority over large swathes of Southern Siberia (Chochorowski 1999, 350). The chronological position of Arzhan-1, established as the 9th/8th century (Зайцева et al. 2007), has become the benchmark for assemblages linked with the initial stages of the early nomadic period.

Pazyryk cemetery
Pazyryk cemetery of Scythian aristocracy in Altai Mountains

Communities inhabiting Tuva at the turn of the Bronze and Early Iron Ages are known to archaeologists as the Mogun-Taiga culture. This Pre-Scythian group is distinguished by burials without furnishings. A similar chronology is ascribed to assemblages described as the Shanchig type, although these should be linked already with the early nomadic period. These are burials in contracted position, placed in over-ground stone chambers covered with small mounds built from stones (Чугунов 2009, 347). When we compare the modest burials discussed above with the rich inventory from Arzhan, we cannot regard them as the direct cultural background from which the Scythian cultural model could directly originate. This model is represented by early assemblages of the Scythian Aldy-Bel culture (identified in Tuva), but in particular by the finds from the protoscythian kurgan Arzhan-1. The appearance of early nomads in previously abandoned valleys of Tuva was connected with climate fluctuations in the Subatlantic period, when the Tuva ecosystems reached their maximum bioproductivity (Зайцева et al. 2010, 82). In search for favourable ecological niches, the nomads from the middle Yenisei River valley (Minusinsk Basin?) must have naturally turned their eyes on the nearby Tuva. In this context, the choice of the wide Turan-Uyuk valley, offering good conditions for herding, access to water, and beautiful landscapes, comes as no surprise. Adding to all these advantages, the valley was situated in the north of Tuva, which means relatively close from the starting area of the migration (i.e. Khakassia). The arrival of nomads in this area in the Early Iron Age should be seen as a reflection of the same phenomena that inspired other nomadic groups from the Yenisei basin to search better pastures in the west. Possibly also during the development of the Aldy-Bel culture (9th-6th century BC), influence running in the opposite, west-to-east direction can be recorded – from what today is Kazakhstan to Tuva. Metallographic analyses of bronze artefacts recovered from Arzhan-1 barrow revealed the predominance of arsenic bronzes, perhaps reflecting the influences from the early nomads of Kazakhstan (Чугунов 2014, 681). The genesis of the Scythian-type cultures of the Sayan and Altai mountains is believed to have been strongly influenced by the Begazy-Dandybevo culture of Kazakhstan (Чугунов 2014, 2016). The beginning of the Iron Age saw transformations in bronze working technology. The analysis of bronze artefacts from Tuva and Khakassia demonstrated that arsenic bronzes were characteristic of Arzhan-1 and Early Tagar sites, while tin bronzes dominated in younger assemblages, representing the Aldy-Bel culture (7th-6th century BC) and the Saragash complex (Хаврин 2005; Чугунов 2014). Interestingly, these transformations followed a similar rhythm as in the territory which today is Central Kazakhstan. Also in this region tin bronzes prevailed in the Bronze Age, which was closely connected with the easy access to rich tin deposits in Kazakhstan, and arsenic bronzes started to appear in the beginning of the Iron Age (Чугунов 2014, 681). Around the turn of the 8th and 7th centuries BC, a period of relative stabilization began in the Great Steppe. This could be connected with the climate in this section of the Subatlantic period. In the 8th century BC a period of climate optimum began, marked, apart from the increased humidity, also by higher temperatures and lesser continentality (Зайцева et al. 2010, 83). Despite huge distances, numerous communities developing over cast steppe areas shared a surprisingly similar model of culture. Its material reflection are primarily the elements of what is known as the Scythian triade. The notion, first coined by Soviet archaeologists B.N. Grakow and A.N. Meljukowa (Б. Н. Граков, А. И. Мелюкова 1954), refers to three areas in the material culture of Great Steppe nomads. The barrow of Arzhan-2 is linked with the so-called Aldy-Bel culture. It is situated approx. 9 km west of Arzhan-1 and dated to the close of the 7 th century BC (Чугунов, Парцингер, Наглер 2017). The masterpieces of gold working recovered from this barrow could not have been created in nomadic milieu, unless one assumes that the nomadic community included some craftsmen originating from a territory where technological skills were more advanced.

The Tagar culture elite tomb Salbyk
The Tagar culture elite tomb Salbyk (and professor Jan Chochorowski between the menhirs)

The formal analysis of the artefacts revealed their links with civilizational centres of China and Zhetysu, clearly pointing to the south and south-west as directions of cultural contact (Чугунов 2011, 177-182). The above was additionally supported by anthropological research, which demonstrated Mongoloid traits of deceased buried in the barrow, which is unique among Indo-Iranian Scythian tribes (ibidem; Чикишева 2008). The analysis of strontium isotopes suggests that the woman buried in the barrow’s main chamber (grave 5) had not spent her childhood in Tuva, and was a migrant from some other, as yet undetermined, territory. One of the suggested places of her origin is the piedmont zone of the Altai Mountains (Лохов et al. 2007, 270; Зайцева et al. 2010, 78). Interestingly, individuals with Mongoloid traits do not differ in terms of concentrations of strontium isotopes in bones from the rest, which means that despite their different appearance they were not migrants. The only exception is a female interred in a side burial, who most likely originated from Khakassia (Зайцева et al. 2010, 78). Individuals buried in the main chamber did not differ in terms of origin from the rest of the deceased, and were most probably locals. Barrow Arzhan-2 also yielded other burials, significantly late than the main chamber – from the Hunno-Sarmatian, and even Mongolian Periods. Investigated since 2008, the barrow of Chinge-Tei-1 is in many aspects similar to Arzhan-2 (Чугунов 2011a, 2017). This is one more princely barrow in the Turan-Uyuk Valley. The main chamber still remains to be explored, but many side burials have been recorded under a vast stone-and-earth mound approx. 80 m in diameter. The barrow adds to the list of elite sites known from the “Valley of Kings”, testifying the existence in northern Tuva of an important centre of power, whose sphere of influence probably encompassed vast parts of Southern Siberia.


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