New archaeological evidence seemingly confirms the Greek historian Herodotus' account of the brutal ways in which Scythians used their dead enemies' bodies.
In his famous Histories, ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote about the Scythians, a nomadic group renowned for their prowess in combat. As Herodotus traveled along the Black Sea, he made observations of the Scythians, painting them as cruel and barbarous. He wrote that they blinded their slaves and, disturbingly, made leather out of human skins.
For centuries, historians assumed Herodotus’ account may have been hyperbolic.
“A Scythian drinks the blood of the first man whom he has taken down,” Herodotus wrote. “He carries the heads of all whom he has slain in the battle to his king; for if he brings a head, he receives a share of the booty taken, but not otherwise… Many too take off the skin, nails and all, from their dead enemies’ right hands, and make coverings for their quivers; the human skin was, as it turned out, thick and shining, the brightest and whitest skin of all, one might say.”
New archaeological evidence suggests, however, that — in this instance at least — Herodotus was accurate.
A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE examined 45 samples of leather excavated at 14 different Scythian sites in southern Ukraine. For the first time, researchers found evidence that the Scythians did indeed make leather out of human skin, just as Herodotus said.
The team, led by Dr. Luise Ørsted Brandt at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, found that while most of the leather samples they recovered belonged to domestic animals, at least two samples were of human origin.
The majority of the leather pieces unearthed from the burial sites were from cattle, horses, goats, and sheep, though there were also leathers made from carnivorous animals. The team believes these could have been tigers, lions, martens, wolverines, otters, or hyenas.
One of the human skin samples had been mixed with goat, horse, and “unidentified bovid” skins to make a quiver. Researchers noted that there seemed to be no apparent pattern when the Scythians made their quivers — they simply used whatever leathers they had on hand, human or otherwise.
“The more unusual, human and carnivore, leather appears to have been used in the top parts of the quivers,” they wrote. “This may indicate that each archer made their own quiver using the materials available at the moment.”
To an enemy of the Scythians, being turned into leather to hold Scythian arrows would have truly added insult to injury.
This macabre discovery only further validates much of what Herodotus wrote of the Scythians, despite claims that he had a habit of lying in his historical accounts. Other archaeological discoveries in recent years have also confirmed some of Herodotus’ writings, such as the re-examination of a large royal Scythian kurgan in southern Ukraine.
This site, known as the Aleksandropol mound, revealed a nearby funerary feasting area that contained the remains of 11 men, women, and children — all of whom were likely killed on the spot and buried there as part of the funerary rites for the mound’s royal occupant.
Herodotus had once written of a Scythian king’s funeral, describing how mourners in attendance committed acts of self-mutilation in honor of the fallen royal. It seems, however, that the Scythians occasionally took it a step further.
Other evidence of this grisly funerary practice was found at the burial mound in Chortomlyk, where archaeologists discovered “six phalanxes of human fingers, two with cut marks, belonging to three or four different people… suggesting that Scythians did in fact mourn their kings by cutting off fingers.”
These discoveries, macabre as they may be, are archaeologically significant, as they provide evidence for Herodotus’ claims about the ancient Scythian culture. Up until the 20th century, Herodotus’ account was one of the only descriptions of Scythian life, with little archaeological evidence to back it up.
In modern times, excavations across Russia and Ukraine have revealed much more information about this feared nomadic culture.
The Scythians were one of the earliest human groups to master the art of horse riding, and they became equally skilled as mounted warriors. For years, their empire stretched across eastern Europe and Asia, expanding into parts of modern-day Russia, until they were ultimately overcome by the Sarmatians around the 4th century B.C.E.
And as the evidence now shows, their culture was particularly brutal.
After learning about the ancient human leather found in Ukraine, read about the discovery of a previously unknown “ghost population” of an ancient human ancestor. Or, learn about this 3,000-year-old mask found in China — that may have belonged to an ancient secret society.