Scythians in Central Asia

Detail of Scythian gold pectoral from Tolstaya Mogila, Ordžonikidze (4th c. BCE) (Photo in public domain)

By Aigerim Korzhumbayeva – 

Once a former Soviet Union state, this country is currently stepping into its third decade as an independent republic since 1991. Geographically, it is located in Central Asia and is the largest landlocked country, stretching from the Caspian Sea on the west to the Altay Mountains on the east, and bordering with Russia, China, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Size-wise, it is the ninth largest country in the world – equivalent to the size of Western Europe. In the past, this country hosted a myriad of civilizations that appeared and vanished on its territory throughout its 3,000+ years of history.  Legendary conquerors such as Alexander the Great and renowned Genghis Khan long ago invaded this land. Most recently, this country ranked twelfth in the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Given the clues above, one should unmistakably identify the mystery country as Kazakhstan, a country that has stimulated interest among historians, investors, and tourists worldwide. Being born and raised in Kazakhstan, I’ve had the privilege of being exposed to Kazakhstan’s history first-hand both in school and at home.  Thus, I would like to share just a tip of the iceberg of my country’s history.

To learn more about Kazakhstan’s roots, first, we must travel back in time to a distant Bronze Age. During this era, Kazakhstan was inhabited by the Bronze Age Andronovo Culture, which flourished from ca. 2100-1400 BCE in the west Asiatic steppe and western Siberia. Andronovo communities were agricultural in nature, practicing farming and utilizing horses, cattle, sheep, Bactrian camels, and goats. [1] Warriors were highly respected and they worshipped the Sun God, who was believed to protect them. Up until today, thousands of petroglyphs have survived on the rocks in Kazakhstan, many under UNESCO protection as at Tanbaly Tas.  They depict different types of animals (including the ubiquitous horse), ritual dances, sun-headed gods, chariots, and war scenes of the Bronze Age.

Kazakhstan Vista (Photo courtesy of Christopher Herwig for National Geographic)

Centuries after the Andronovo Culture, in the Iron Age the Sacae peoples entered and conquered Kazakhstan. The name “Sacae” originated from the Persians, but other civilizations had different names for the Sacae. For instance, the Greeks called this tribe “Scythians”. The Scythian lands encompassed Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The “Father of History”, Herodotus, referred to the Sacae as “Asian Scythians” in The Histories ca. 440 BCE and he presented various versions of their origins. Indeed, much of what we have accepted about the ancient Scythians came through Greek accounts.  In a somewhat mythological context of ancestry, Herodotus said:

“According to the account which the Scythians themselves give, they are the youngest of all nations. Their tradition is as follows. A certain Targitaus was the first man who ever lived in their country, which before his time was a desert without inhabitants. He was a child- I do not believe the tale, but it is told nevertheless- of Jove and a daughter of the Borysthenes. Targitaus, thus descended, begat three sons, Leipoxais, Arpoxais, and Colaxais, who was the youngest born of the three. While they still ruled the land, there fell from the sky four implements, all of gold- a plough, a yoke, a battle-axe, and a drinking-cup. The eldest of the brothers perceived them first, and approached to pick them up; when lo! as he came near, the gold took fire, and blazed. He therefore went his way, and the second coming forward made the attempt, but the same thing happened again. The gold rejected both the eldest and the second brother. Last of all the youngest brother approached, and immediately the flames were extinguished; so he picked up the gold, and carried it to his home. Then the two elder agreed together, and made the whole kingdom over to the youngest born.” [2]

From Leipoxais sprang the Scythians of the race called Auchatae; from Arpoxais, the middle brother, those known as the Catiari and Traspians; from Colaxais, the youngest, the Royal Scythians, or Paralatae. All together they are named Scoloti, after one of their kings: the Greeks, however, call them Scythians. [3]

In another version Herodotus mentioned:

There is also another different story, now to be related, in which I am more inclined to put faith than in any other. It is that the wandering Scythians once dwelt in Asia, and there warred with the Massagetae, but with ill success; they therefore quitted their homes, crossed the Araxes, and entered the land of Cimmeria. For the land which is now inhabited by the Scyths was formerly the country of the Cimmerians. On their coming, the natives, who heard how numerous the invading army was, held a council. At this meeting opinion was divided, and both parties stiffly maintained their own view; but the counsel of the Royal tribe was the braver. For the others urged that the best thing to be done was to leave the country, and avoid a contest with so vast a host; but the Royal tribe advised remaining and fighting for the soil to the last. As neither party chose to give way, the one determined to retire without a blow and yield their lands to the invaders; but the other, remembering the good things which they had enjoyed in their homes, and picturing to themselves the evils which they had to expect if they gave them up, resolved not to flee, but rather to die and at least be buried in their fatherland. Having thus decided, they drew apart in two bodies, the one as numerous as the other, and fought together. All of the Royal tribe were slain, and the people buried them near the river Tyras, where their grave is still to be seen. Then the rest of the Cimmerians departed, and the Scythians, on their coming, took possession of a deserted land. [4]

Kazakh customs, traditions, and language are deeply rooted back to the Indo-Scythians, generally referred by Persians as Saka tigraxauda, which means “pointed hat Sacae”. [5]  The Scythians were nomads, wandering from place to place in search of the most convenient land for farming. They held horses with especially high esteem. As a matter of fact, the Scythians are most famous for galloping on a horse at full speed while shooting bows, a skill particularly useful in warfare.  The Scythians intimidated numerous nations they set foot on, including the Urartu kingdom, Palestine, Egypt, and Assyria, and their warrior spirit led them to become an archetype for the valiant half-man and half-horse centaur. [6] Their invasions into distant nations resulted not only in spoils, but also in the accumulation of a wealth of knowledge regarding different cultures that they brought back with themselves to the territory of Kazakhstan.

Andronovo Horse Petroglyph, Tanbaly Tas, Bronze Age, 2nd millennium BCE (Photo courtesy of Yerlan Karin)

Women were valued just as equally as men in Scythian society, and their civilization saw great women leaders in international affairs. For example, when the Persians invaded the territory of the Massagetae Scythians in 530 BCE, Cyrus lost the battle and was killed in 529. Tomyris, the Scythian queen, was in charge of the army and took revenge against the Persians for the death of her son in the prior battle. In one of the most famous grisly stories of antiquity, Tomyris ordered the head of Cyrus the Great, the Persian King, to be cut off and placed into a wineskin filled with his blood, saying the following: “You have destroyed me, alive and victorious that I am, by vehemently taking away my son. Now came my turn, to satiate you with your own blood, as I have promised” (Herodotus History I.214). [7] The bravery and determination of Tomyris is highly praised even today.  As evidence to her popularity, today the female name, Tomiris, is common in Kazakhstan as she is a national heroine.

Mattia Preti. “Queen Tomyris receiving the Head of Cyrus, King of Persia”, c. 1670, (Photo in public domain)

The nearly continuous war between the Scythians and the Persians eventually resulted in the partial alliance of two groups. In 518 BCE Persians set their troops against the Scythians again, with Persian king Darius I playing the lead. The Persian troops were intimidated by the valiant Scythian cavalry, which forced the panic-stricken Persians to flee. As a result of a prolonged battle with the Persians, a part of the Scythians were defeated, and they were forced to pay taxes to provide the cavalry for the Persian army. In the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE) the Scythians fought on the side of the Persians, previously an enemy, now an ally, against the Greeks. The records of Herodotus survived to tell of the bravery of the Scythians and their alliance with the Persian King Xerxes I (the son of Darius I) against the Greeks in the Battle of Plataea (479 BCE). Earlier in the feud Darius himself refers to the Kazakhstan Scythians (Saka tigraxauda) :

“Afterwards with an army I went to the land of the Sakas after the Sakas who wear a pointed hat. These Sakas went from me. When I arrived at the sea, then I crossed beyond it with all my army. Afterwards I defeated the Sakas exceedingly. [8]

The land of the Asian Scythians also drew the attention of Alexander the Great. He led a war to crush the Scythians in the Jaxartes River region, known today as Syr-Darya, in South Kazakhstan around 329 BCE. He founded his ninth city, Alexandria Eskhate (“Farthest Alexandria”), at the banks of the Syr-Darya River. [9] The Scythians played a big role in preventing this great leader from conquering the rest of the world by blocking his way at Syr-Darya River.

The Scythians were not only talented in warfare, especially cavalry, they were also talented in artistry. They developed an outstanding art called “beast (or animal) style”, which is characterized by the flowing movements of beasts of prey, some mythical like griffins, and herbivores like the horses they loved and the fierce struggle between them. Although the lead image in this article is from Ukraine and the  northern Scythians, many items – often in gold relief –  pertaining to their animal style have been found in Southeast Kazakhstan. In terms of how prolific the animal style was as a decorative agenda, one Scythian burial mound in Issyk belonging to VI-V century BCE draws utmost attention. Located near the ex-capital, Almaty, this mound was discovered in 1969-1970.  The Issyk Mound retained an burial monumental mound (kurgan) of a Scythian king, whose clothes were covered entirely with gold. The clothing was covered with 4,000 golden accessories in the shape of horses, barses (snow leopards in Central Asia), mountain goats, and birds. [10] The king had the famous pointed hat – tigraxaude – of his Saka people decorated with images of winged horses. Historians suggest that the winged horses symbolize the Sun God, worshipped since the Bronze Age. The clothing of the king was complemented with the animal style accessories such as two massive rings and a belt with a figure of running deer.

Kurgan at Berel in East Kazakhstan (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian)

The kurgan graves tell a lot about the lifestyle of the Scythians. The Scythians had a tradition of burying dead people with their possessions. The items found in the grave indicate the social status of the dead. The Scythian king in Issyk Mound was buried together with his long sword, a short dagger, clay jars, wooden trays with meat, and precious bowls of gold and silver, which indisputably signify his wealth. Other Scythian graves, which included more modest items, indicate that there were social stratifications in Scythian society. Rich gold objects found in Scythian graves have almost become a hallmark of the culture. [11]  Nowadays although modern-day Kazakhs do not bury the deceased with their possessions, the grave and tomb styles, as well as the materials used in building the grave can be a sign of social status. While the Scythians placed more importance to the inside of the grave and preferred the social status of the deceased to stay unknown (by burying the possessions underground), today the preference has shifted to the outside appearance of graves. Oftentimes today we encounter grand graves that clearly outshine the more modest ones with their exterior grandeur.

Issyk Kurgan Golden Man, 4th-3rd c. BCE (Photo in public domain)

Ever since the discovery of the Issyk Mound in 1969, the Scythian king has become not only an envoy of Kazakh history, but also the symbol of Kazakhstan. In the nation he is known as Altyn Adam – Golden Man – to commemorate the golden clothing he was buried with, including 4,000 gold ornaments. Today the original Golden Man copy is preserved in the National Museum of Gold and Precious Stones in the capital city, Astana. Throughout the country replicas of the Golden Man adorn national museums. The Golden Man monument towers above in the center of the Main Square in Almaty. In addition, particularly important gift-giving Kazakh tradition includes presenting the Golden Man souvenir to foreigners.

The language spoken by the Scythians is still a topic of debate. While some historians think it is one of the Indo-Iranian language groups, the majority believes that the language is a proto-Turkic one. A silver bowl, discovered among 30 wooden, clay, bronze, and silver containers in the Issyk Mound, has become an item of meticulous concern by graphologists and historians. The bowl, with an inscription of 26 characters, has not been decrypted yet and more evidence is needed to make complete judgment about the Scythian language. Nonetheless, the inscription on the bowl suggests that the Scythians were well acquainted with the written system as early as VI-V century BCE.

Moreover, the physical appearance of the Scythians has drawn particular attention. According to anthropological research, Andronovo communities, as well as their Scythian successors had a European look. In fact, prior to VII-XIII century BCE, all Kazakh samples belonged to European lineages. [12] However, with the invasion of Genghis Khan, a high number of Mongols spread throughout the territory of Kazakhstan and other parts of Eurasia, which significantly contributed to the Mongoloid features in Kazakhs. The Kazakhstan DNA Project’s Y-chromosome records show that Kazakhs are approximately 70% Mongoloid, and 30% Caucasian.

According to another highly regarded study, [13] there is a high genetic diversity observed among Kazakhs (h=0.996). Kazakhstan territory has been an area of interaction of many different ethnic groups during a long period. Scythians, Mongol tribes, Turkic groups from Altai and Siberia, Indo-Iranians from Near East, and Slavs from Eastern Europe resided on the territory of Kazakhstan, thus explaining the high genetic variability of modern-day Kazakhs. Today Kazakhstan is a multi-ethnic country where more than 130 different ethnic groups reside, including Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Uyghurs, Germans, Romanians, Armenians, Koreans, Greeks, Poles, Turks, Chechens, and many more. My own rich genetic mix must include Scythian nomadic genes combined with Mongol and other Asian bloodlines.  Kazakhstan as a country, like my family, reflects a uniquely global heritage from the broadest of range of sources at the genetic and cultural crossroads of history in Central Asia.

Aigerim’s (author) Kazakh Family on Maternal Side, author at bottom left  (Photo mosaic: Aigerim Korzhumbayeva, 2012)



[1]  A.P. Okladnikov. “Inner Asia at the Dawn of History.” The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 83.

[2] , [3], [4]  George Rawlinson. The History of Herodotus. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1885, ed. and tr., vol.3, book 4, 36, 46, 82.

[5]  Richard Frye. “Central Asia III In Pre-Islamic Times” Encyclopaedia Iranica Vol. V, Fasc. 2,  164-169.

[6]  History of Kazakhstan. The Almaty Expat Site. 2012.

[7]   Kazakhstan History: Preparatory Book for University Examinations. Almaty: Shyn Publishing, 2005.

[8]  Frye, op. cit. quoting the Behistun (Bīsotūn DB 5.20-30) inscription.

[9]  Bradley Mayhew et al. Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan. London: Lonely Planet Books, 2007, 37

[10]    Yerbol B. Kairanov, Arnur Zh. Karymsakov.  “The Influence of Ancient Artifacts on Contemporary Culture (exemplified by the Painting and Sculpture of Kazakhstan).”  WASET 68 (2012) World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology, Kazakh National Academy of Arts, 2248-2250.

[11]    Ellen Reeder and Michael Treister. Scythian Gold. New York: Harry Abrams, 1999.

[12]  C. Lalueza-Fox et al. “Unravelling Migrations in the Steppe: Mitochondrial DNA Sequences from Ancient Central Asians.” The Royal Society. 2004 March. 941-947

[13]  Galina M. Berezina, Gulnara Svyatova and Zhanar Makhmutova. “The Analysis of the Genetic Structure of the Kazakh Population as Estimated from Mitochondrial DNA Polymorphism.” Medical and Health Science Journal vol. 6 ( 2011)  2-6.