Ancient Chinese and Greco-Roman sources describe the nomadic tribes of southern Siberia as barbaric warriors who posed a constant threat to the security of the more civilized settlements, yet a lack of archaeological evidence has prevented a deeper understanding of life among these roaming communities. However, a new analysis of 87 skeletons retrieved from an ancient burial site in the Republic of Tuva has shed new light on the violence that colored the culture of certain tribes, in which decapitation and scalping appear to have been common practice.
Appearing in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, the study describes the widespread presence of wounds on skeletons recovered from Tunnug1, a burial site associated with a group of nomadic warriors known as the Scythians. Dated from the second to the fourth centuries, the remains display a wide array of injuries “including chop marks, slice marks, penetrating lesions, and blunt traumas.”
The study authors explain that the majority of the chop marks were located on the “cranium, mandible, and upper vertebral column” of numerous victims, indicating that these particular wounds were inflicted during decapitation attempts. While the majority of these beheadings appear to have been carried out during warfare, the researchers believe that some of those buried at Tunnug1 may also have met their end during ritual sacrifices.
For example, they describe the remains of a decapitated elderly woman who was buried with a sheep’s vertebra in place of her head, and propose that she may have been killed as part of some sort of terrifying ritual.
Slice marks, meanwhile, were most commonly found on the throat or towards the top of the skull, indicating that many of those buried at the site had their throats slit, while killers often removed the scalps of their victims to keep as trophies.
Puncture wounds were also common, suggesting that arrows, spears, and pick axes may have been popular weapons among the ancient nomadic tribes of southern Siberia.
Overall, a quarter of those buried at the site appear to have been killed as a direct result of interpersonal violence, whether during hand-to-hand combat or other sinister practices. Commenting on these gruesome findings, study author Marco Milella explained in a statement that “violence was not only related to raids and battles, but probably also due to specific, still mysterious, rituals involving the killing of humans and the collection of war trophies.”