Scythian burial mound
Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

Archaeological research has come a very long way in recent times. We as a society hardly appreciate it enough, even if it makes a huge difference to our own history. DNA Analysis is also a big part of this process. In the time that technological improvements and refinement in models and approaches have come in, previous methods could have led to errors that can potentially rewrite history.

A study by the Historical Genetics Lab at MIPT has published new path-breaking research that can point us to the Amazons. While the study has only just turned out to be a revelation it could be a larger indication to new findings in the area. Moreover, it could prove Herodotus' claims. 

The myth of the Amazons

The farther back we go in history the lesser we know about what went on in times so different from our own. But, researchers around the world are working day and night to uncover more and bring us more facts to paint a picture of reality in a different time.

The Scythians were a stalk of people who populated the Steppes dominating that region between the 7th and 3rd Century BCE. They were considered warring nomads, most of their history reconstructed through the writings of Herodotus, Pliny the Elder and Hippocrates. However, archaeology is still trying to find more evidence pointing them to a more accurate picture of what they looked like, and how they lived.

Amidst this work, enters the 'Amazons' this tribe of warrior women have been rendered mythical ever since their mention by Herodotus and Strabo. The Amazons were believed to have been part of the Trojan war, travelling through Egypt and Syria. Herodotus placed the warrior women in Scythia following the defeat of the Greeks. Even as many would like to believe the strong Amazons, a completely female-dominated tribe would have existed independently in that time, proving their existence has been a hard quest.

Wherever the Amazons are located by the Greeks, whether it is somewhere along the Black Sea in the distant north-east, or in Libya in the furthest south, it is always beyond the confines of the civilized world. The Amazons exist outside the range of normal human experience."- Peter Walcot

While there have been many proposals to prove the existence of the Amazons and their culture, there has been little evidence leading historians in that direction. 

Research on the 2,500 year-old Scythian burial mound

This background leads to the modern-day archaeological work done in this area. In 1988, a Scythian burial mound was studied by the RAS Institute for the History of Material Culture. In this recovered burial mound dating back to the 7th Century BCE was a mummified body. This body was buried along with weapons. Researchers had believed the burial was that of a boy, till now.

This particular Saryg-Bulun burial site was found during excavations in along the banks of the Upper Yenisei in the modern-day Tuva Republic, of Russia. This mummified body was identified as that of a child between 12 and 14 years of age. Buried in full combat gear, with a bow, arrows and ax. Thankfully, the favourable isolated condition and environmental conditions allowed for the burial to be preserved.

In 1988, researchers employed indirect methods to determine the sex and gender of the bodies buried. These methods may lead to inaccuracy, some of these cues include the size of the pelvic girdle, anatomical features and 'symbolic cues' i.e. a mirror for a female and spear for a male. This shows gender bias seeping into research in our own times. 

This makes it necessary for DNA Analysis to go hand in hand with archaeological research especially where mummies and burials are concerned. This is where the Historical Genetics Lab at MIPT comes into the picture. This happens to be one of the few labs in the world today to perform DNA Analysis at this level.

The research on this particular burial from Tuva was conducted by— Kharis Mustafin, Irina Alborova, and Alina Matsvay at MIPT. 

MIPT researchers
Kharis Mustafin (center), Irina Alborova (left), and Alina MatsvayKharis Mustafin, MIPT

IBTimes reached out to the researchers to know more about the study. The MIPT's Historical Genetics Lab was called in to study the paternal ancestry of the burial when they discovered that the 'girl' who buried was wrongly identified as a 'boy' Kharis Mustafin told us: "The archaeologists who unearthed the ancient mummified remains of the child along with the weapons were completely sure the body belonged to a boy. They suggested that we study "his" paternal and maternal origins using the tools of archaeogenetics."

He said they uncovered through the process, "After extracting ancient DNA samples, we repeatedly attempted to examine the individual's paternal ancestry but failed to do so, because it turned out there were no fragments of the Y chromosome in any of the samples — and it is the male sex chromosome. This was entirely unexpected, prompting us to run additional analyses for sex determination using several independent techniques." 

The study went on for half a year said Kharis Mustafin who led the research team. To determine the buried person's sex, the team performed both a quantitative and qualitative DNA assay and analyzed an amelogenin gene via a molecular biology method known as a polymerase chain reaction, which amplifies the initially low concentration of certain DNA fragments in the sample.

 The researchers going farther in this endeavour are in the process of tracing the maternal ancestry of the warrior female. A larger-scale study is underway, where the geneticists are again teaming up with their collaborators from the Institute for the History of Material Culture, who have retrieved about 70 new samples for DNA analysis dating from different epochs at a site not far from where the Tuvan Amazon was found, the team said in its press release. 

When asked, what this would mean for future archaeological studies and would it imply that there are more such burials that could have been mistaken in terms of gender, Mustafin tells IBTimes, "The experience of our laboratory and that of others shows that archaeologists are not always able to conclusively determine the sex of the individuals whose remains are discovered during excavations. Genetics allows us to solve this problem. Our laboratory has made sex determination a standard procedure for every sample submitted for paleogenetic analysis, regardless of the initial assumptions about the person's gender." 

It'll be interesting to see further studies conducted in this area and how our history as we know it might change along with our perceptions.