Ariets Research Blog

May 2, 2009

Physical anthropology of Scythians: How they looked and how they measured

Filed under: -Scythians, Physical anthropology — Ariets @ 5:41 pm

Physical anthropology of Scythians: How they looked and how they measured

Source and Comments
I apologize for any errors in the translation of the specialized terminology, and for the specifics of the material, which necessarily go into much detail. The details are valuable in their precision, they preclude any attempts to falsify the facts or explain them away as errors, blunders or obsolete data of the ancient contemporaries.


Scythian archeology map 1 (link)
Scythian archeology map 2 (link)

Ullybaganaly (link)

Tikhonov A.G.



Table 1. Median values of male scull signs in burial Ullybaganaly (7 – 6 cc. BC.)

Table 2. Mean values of osteometric parameters of bones from Ullybaganaly burial 7c. BC

Fig. 1. Comparison of Ullybaganaly burial sculls with Kobanian culture sculls and with sculls of Scythian-Sarmatian time from North-Western Caucasus.

Table 3. Index of Proportions

Table 4. Comparison of Ullybaganaly sculls with Kobanian culture sculls and with sculls of Scythian-Sarmatian time from North-Eastern Caucasus (men)

Fig 2. Comparison of Ulubaganaly burial series with Scythian series from East European Steppes

Table 5. Comparison of long bones from Ullybaganaly burial with Scythian (Konductorova, 1979). Men.


It is not a secret for anybody that Northern Caucasus is seen by archeologists, and also by paleoanthropologists, as a rather mysterious region. Despite apparent abundance of a material, its interpretation meets a number of difficulties. In fact, the paleoanthropological materials represent territory of Northern Caucasus extremely mosaically. Especially it relates to Scythian-Sarmatian time, that is 7 c. BC to 1 c. AD. The number of series dated by this epoch does not exceed several skulls, and, though the material covers almost all territory of region, the whole set of problems remains unsolved. First of all, there is a problem of the physical build of the population, people of the Kobanian culture so well studied archeologically. There is little anthropological data and obviously insufficient for a solution of the question about origin and dynamics of the period for a complex of attributes traditionally ascribed to the population of Kobanian culture. (I shall notice, however, that the definitive components of this complex are not yet determined finally and are equivocal enough). That is why there is a clear necessity of scrupulous study of any, even most numerically insignificant materials, for extraction of all possible information: each detail here is important. Actually, the reasons mentioned above have caused to this work.

From an anthropologist’s point of view the Ullybaganaly burial, located 30 kilometers west from Kislovodsk, and dated 7-6 cc. BC (Kovalevskaya, 1984), gave insignificant material.

Suitable for measurement were 6 male and 2 female skulls, and 6 male and 4 female skeletons. However, the archeological uniqueness of this burial requires a careful study of the paleoanthropological materials. In the opinion of the author of excavation V.B. Kovalevskaya, the burial artifacts and the burial ritual clearly display contacts of the local (Kobanian) and newcomer (Scythian) traditions. Thus we deal with an archeologically proved contact between steppe Scythian and local mountain peoples. Possibly, we will fill with anthropological contents the fact of contacts between two large cultural communities in Northern Caucasus.


The craniological and osteological average values of traits are presented in the Tables 1 and 2. Considering the importance of the material, we did not limit this case only to the analysis of averages, however. A study of each skeleton was performed and a detailed description produced. With these results we can not only present our series in a numerical format, but also locate the characteristic features, which determine the common structure and form of the skulls and the postcranial skeleton.

Male skulls. Skulls of medium sizes with some prevalence of a longitudinal diameter. The skulls are characterized by dolichocrania, frequently on the border with mezocrania, and also by a significant height. Vertically the skulls are close to oboid (oval? – Translator’s note) form. In cross section and in posterior view the skulls are pentagonal. Forehead is medium sloped, narrow or medium width. Forehead hillocks are medium developed. Laterally the nape is angular and with a high length of arc. Nape hillocks often reach a significant development.

Occiput is widish, slightly prominent. Occipital tuber is lightly developed. The face skeleton is characterized by very small cheekbone width; a small width of the middle and middle top face. Noted is some incline of cheekbones to the front (in Ruyssian “klinognatia” – Translator’s note). The face seems shortish. In a horizontal plane, the top portion of the face skeleton is profiled weakly, the middle part is profiled strongly. In a vertical plane the face is orthognatial. Nose bridge impresses as well profiled, medium high. A nose is large in height and medium in width, with mezorinnal index. As far as possible to judge visually (to measure appear impossible), the nasal bones stood out considerably. The bottom ledge of a nose foramen is antropinal, fossae prenasalae is marked only in one case. Frontal prosess of maxilla bone is developed above average. Orbits are fairly large, wide, and medium high, chameconic by the index, quasi-rectangular or oval form. The jaw is characterized by large size, fairly high bulkiness and elongated shape (large values of the longitudinal dimensions and medium cross dimensions). In whole the male skulls can be characterized as Europoid dolichocranial, high, with strongly profiled face in a horizontal plane and very narrow. A nose is large and prominent. Certainly, the small number in the series does not allow to unequivocally determine all traits; however, the complex of attributes allow easily tell the basic features of the Mediterranean type of Southern Europoid race.

Female skulls. It is necessary to specifically address two female skulls excluded from further consideration. Despite of considerable difference in size (the skull from the burial 6 is much larger), both skulls have a number of common features: both are brachycranial, sphenoid, medium profiled in the top portion of the face and strongly in middle, with noted alveolar prognathism and a large lower jaw. As a whole, with some exceptions, the female complex of skull attributes is similar to male. Such features as brachycrany and alveolar prognathism with insignificant quantities in a series (2!) does not allow to talk about essential differences of female skulls, exceeding the framework of sexual dimorphism and, especially, to make from this fact far-reaching conclusions.

Table 1. Median values of male scull signs in burial Ullybaganaly (7 – 6 cc. BC.).

Table 2. Mean values of osteometric parameters of bones from Ullubaganaly burial 7c. BC.

Fig. 1. Comparison of Ullubaganaly burial sculls with Kobanian culture sculls and with sculls of Scythian-Sarmatian time from North-Western Caucasus.

Osteological characteristics. The group analysis of long bones of men does not allow deducting authentically any characteristic common features: all skeletons are different enough. However a thorough comparison of skeletons allows to note some details. First, the lower limb is somewhat lengthened in relation to the upper limb, with the length of the body on the border of larger sizes (length of a body, in fact, varies considerably from 162 to 174 sm). Secondly, long bones’ diaphysis tend to small bulkiness (relative or absolute gracility is characteristic for almost all skeletons). In the female series is noted a definite degree of shortness, medium bulkiness of bones and a significant width of shoulders, reconstructed by the length of clavicles. Thus it is possible to note some dolichomorphism of the men and brachymorphism of the women. It is impossible to tell precisely by virtue of small number in series how real are these differences. Table3

Table 3. Index of Proportions


To find possible analogies to our materials, we carried out comparison of our series with groups of approximately of same time interval from the territory of Northern Caucasus. Two group collections are chosen for comparison: skulls of Kobanian culture, including 5 male skulls from Koban (Shantr, Debets), 5 skulls from Upper Rutkha (Debets), 2 skulls from Manych (Ginzburg), 2 skulls from Mozdok (Bunak) and series for Scythians-Sarmatians, including skulls from Mozdok, Voronezh, Elizavetinsk, and Nikolaev burials (Bunak, 1953, Debets, 1948, Gerasimova, 1976).

The numerical data is presented in the Table 3, graphics on Figure 1. It is easy to note that all three collections are characterized by a group of common features. They are united by dolichocrany, small cheekbone diameter, and a significant height of a skull. At the same time it is necessary to also note some differences of a series from Ullybaganaly. The skulls of this group clearly display a rather large size of noses and orbits. As far as these differences are real it is difficult to tell due to small number of our series. Thus, it is possible to ascertain that the skulls from Ullybaganaly do not cross beyond the framework of the forms characteristic for Northern Caucasus 7c. BC to 1 c. AD. As we already noted above, the fact of cultural interaction between Scythian and Kobanian peoples does not leave a doubt. However how deep it was, whether there were conjugal contacts, is not determined yet. To approach in any measure to the answer to this question we performed a comparison of a series from Ullybaganaly with Scythians of N Pontic and Dniepr basin. We choose two composite groups for comparison: a series from Nikolaevka-Kazatskoe and Zolotaya Balka burials, from the 1 c. BC to 3 c. AD (Konductorova, 1979), and composite series of Nothern   Pontic and Dniepr basin Scythians of the 7 to 3 cc. BC (Konductorova, 1972). T.S.Konductorova in her works proved the soundness of combining various series into one.

The results, presented in the Table 4 and on Figure 2, appeared rather unexpected. We observe clearly the extremely great similarity of the series from Ullybaganaly with the Scythian skulls, even on Caucasian scale.

Table 4. Comparison of Ulubaganaly burial sculls with Kobanian culture sculls and with sculls of Scythian-Sarmatian time from North-East Caucasus (men).

Fig 2 . Comparison of Ulubaganaly burial series with Scythian series from East European Steppes.

The similar outcome also results from the comparison of long bones. However, in this case the large thigh and smaller shoulder massiveness in the series from Ullybaganaly can reflect truthfully enough the definitive distinctions in productive and cultural type (Table 5).

Table 5. Comparison of long bones from Ulubaganaly burial with Scythian (Konductorova, 1979). Men.


So, the summary. We noted that the series from Ullybaganaly burials belongs to the North Caucasian circle of the forms, with characteristic dolichocrania and a narrow strongly profiled face. A large protruding nose. At the same time was found a high similarity of our series to the Scythian groups of the Dniepr basin and the Northern Pontic, and a superior similarity with the North Caucasian groups. There can be two probable explanations to this: the anthropological contact between Scythian and Kobanian peoples was so close, that the initial anthropological type of the Koban culture population simply dissolved in the mass of the Scythian peoples, or there was an inherent uniform anthropological layer in the nomadic population of steppe and the settled population of Northern Caucasus. The first suggestion seems improbable anthropologically and poorly supported historically. Really, on the data of an archeology and witness of the written sources the Scythian influence in the Northern Caucasus was limited to sporadic events of the military activity (Scythians crossed the Northern Caucasus during the military campaigns in the Near East). Naturally, in such conditions an active genetic exchange by conjugal ties could not discussed seriously (Krupnov, I960). Therefore we are inclined to think that in the Scythian time there was a uniform anthropological layer, with distinctive features of dolichocrany, high skull, a narrow strongly profiled face, and а large prominent nose.


1. Bunak V.V. A skull from mountain Caucasus crypts in comparative anthropological light. Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography Collection, Vol. 14, M.-L., 1953.

2. Gerasimova M.I., Rud N.Kh., Yablonsky L.T. Anthropology of antique and medieval population of Eastern Europe. U., 1987.

3. Debets G.F. Paleoanthropology of USSR/Sc. Works of Ethnography Inst.,Vol. 4, M.-L., 1948.

4. Kovalevskaya V.B. Caucasus and Alans (Centuries and peoples). M., 1964.

5. Konductorova T.S. Anthropology of ancient population of Ukraine. (1 millennium BC – middle of 1 millennium AD), M., 1972.

6. Konductorova T.S. Physical type of people in the Lower Dniepr basin in the beginning of new era. M., 1979.

7. Krupnov V.I. Ancient history of Northern Caucasus. М., 1960.

Source: (link).

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