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This lesson explores the culture of the Scythians, a nomadic group of people known to be violent, cannibalistic warriors. By reading this lesson, you can study where the Scythians lived and what they contributed to the world. Long ago, there were groups of people who constantly moved around, never settling. One such group, called the Scythians, were known as skilled but violent warriors who may have engaged in cannibalism and other taboos.

Who Were the Scythians?

The Scythians were nomads who lived in an area once known as Scythia.

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Scythia is an area in modern day Iran and other areas of eastern Europe.The Scythian culture existed between the 9th and 4th centuries BC. This time period is divided into 3 subsequent periods. The first period is the pre-Scythian period. It occurred from the 9th century to the middle of the 7th century BC. The second time period is known as the early Scythian epoch and lasted from the 7th to the 6th centuries BC.

The last period is known as the classical Scythian epoch which occurred from the 5th to the 4th centuries BC.

Map of Scythia
Map of Scythia

Scythians were considered an individualized group due to their customs, though there may have been more than one group referred to by this name. Although the individual location for each group is unknown, most of the Scythians lived in the area surrounded by the Danube River and Mongolia (and down to the Iranian plateau).Scythians were nomads, meaning they moved from one place to another without forming a permanent settlement. They were skilled with horses and in archery, and much of their culture centered around horses.

One of the oldest sources regarding the Scythians was created by Herodotus, who is one of the oldest historians. His words depict the Scythians as a barbarous group of people who lived north of the Black Sea in modern day Moldova and Ukraine. However, he wrote more than one account of the people, and these sometimes contradicted with each other.Scythians may have engaged in the use of hallucinogenic drugs for ritualistic purposes as well as cannibalistic practices. However, some ancient sources suggest the Scythians were much more civilized than to practice these things.The Scythian culture basically faded from written record. It was likely pushed by the Sarmatians as their culture became dominant.

Burial Tombs

One of the best sources of information for studying ancient societies is grave sites. Kurgans are large burial mounds created by the Scythians. Many burial mounds have been found in eastern European areas of the Ukraine and southern Russia.Within these burial mounds lie many artifacts and pieces of art. The word ‘kurgan’ in Russian derives from a word meaning castle.

Scythians created much of their artwork with gold. Some tombs have contained objects with hints of Greek crafting, suggesting Scythians may have adopted some parts of Greek culture.

Royal Scythian Arm Piece
Royal Arm Piece

Tribes and War

In order to organize land holdings and defense systems, Scythians organized themselves into tribes. These tribes sometimes allied themselves with non-nomadic groups of people, trading animal produce and defense. Herodotus indicated there may have been one tribe that dominated the others.

The Scythians were known to be skilled warriors. Some may even have put their skills to use as hired mercenaries. They were skilled archers and may have used arrows with poison tips.

Art

Scythians used gold to produce elaborate jewelry and ornaments for their horses and their weapons. Many of their artifacts resemble styles popularized by the Greeks.

The influence of Scythian-style can be seen as far east as Korea and Japan.

Scythian Neck Piece
Scythian Neckpiece

Learning Outcomes

Once you have finished, you should be able to:

  • Recall where and when the Scythians lived
  • Describe Scythian culture and societal structure
  • List some evidence of Scythian culture that still exists

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