Tartu University researchers help reveal Scythians' true identity

Grave of a Scythian-Sarmatian in Perevolochan, in the southern foothills of the Urals in Russia.
Grave of a Scythian-Sarmatian in Perevolochan, in the southern foothills of the Urals in Russia. Source: Research in Estonia/Nikita Savelev

Researchers at the University of Tartu have led the way in uncovering the history of the Scythians, nomadic peoples who inhabited vast swathes of southern Russia, Ukraine and central Asia from around the 9th century BC to the 4th century AD.

Given their distance in time (the Scythians were mentioned by Herodotus who lived in the fifth century BC), there are still large gaps in knowledge as to who the Scythians really were.

"The Scythian name involves a vast territory and a large population that has been debated to originate from various preceding local steppe peoples as well as from migrants from Asia, but determining their origin is far from easy," said Aivar Kriiska, a professor of laboratory archaeology at the University of Tartu, according to a Research Estonia piece translated from the original Estonian version on ERR's Novaator portal.

"The archaeological material, as well as physical anthropology research on human bones, indicate extensive contacts between the steppe peoples and Asian migrants, but a more detailed understanding of the migrations of the populations of that time undoubtedly requires studying ancient DNA," added Kriiska.

The work group led by  Mari Järve  at the University of Tartu's Institute of Genomics also include geneticists and archaeologists from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Italy and Germany, and has recently had an article in respected journal Current Biology on the topic.

The studied DNA analysed came from people living in the region from a vast time-span, from 1,500 to 4,600 years ago. For comparison, the researchers also analyzed people from cultures preceding and succeeding the Scythians, revealing that the culture was far from homogenous

"As with earlier research, our research shows differences in the DNA in the Scythians, indicating that they covered groups of people of various origins," said Järve.

"It was like a confederation combining several tribes. Based on genetic data, various samples from among the Scythians and peoples adjacent to them, e.g., Sarmatians, can be grouped by their geographic origin, and positioned closer to their neighbors from the same period and region, than to Scythians located further away."

However, the coin has two sides, Järve said.

"This was a time when changes also occurred within the 'genetic landscape' of the Eurasian steppe, meaning that a genetic component originating from the Altai Mountains in Asia can be seen spreading across steppe and forest steppe zones, most prominently among the eastern Scythians. This supports the hypothesis that an east-west population migration played a part in the formation of the Scythians as a group," she said.

The other significant change came after the Scythians in present-day Ukrainian territory, during the development of the so-called Chernyakhiv culture over 1,700 years ago. Studying ancient DNA has shown that the Chernyakhiv culture probably formed as a result of migration originating from the north.

"All the studied individuals from the Chernyakhiv culture are genetically notably more 'western' than any of the individuals of the preceding cultures on Ukrainian territory, overlapping with the genetic variation in modern, as well as Bronze and Iron Age Europeans," noted Aivar Kriiska, who said that the results obtained came thanks to interdisciplinary and international collaboration between geneticists and archaeologists and make a significant contribution to the study of the history and origins of ancient peoples.

Mari Järve, added that the studies of ancient DNA have shown that human prehistory is as a result more complicated than had previously been thought, which is also confirmed by their own recent study.

"To explain it piece by piece, we would need to study all the areas on earth, and this work does not follow modern state borders. It goes without saying that such studies would be impossible without good colleagues in several countries," added Järve.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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