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Salve to all,

In our discourse on the thread "Roxolani and Iazages," it became clear we were talking about two distinct tribes with little relation to one-another. A general consensus considers the Roxolani (Rhoxalani) as the initial Alanic spearhead to enter Roman space. Unlike the Sauromatian Iazyges, the Roxolani were true "Sarmatians" as defined by modern archaeologists. As such, they fit the Alan genesis. The anthropological features of the Eastern Sarmatians and subsequent Alans was explained in Post #87 on the "Roxolani and Iazages" thread, which essentially describes a significant Asiatic (Mongoloid) admixture not found on the Iazygess or earlier Western Scythians. We might add that Scythians were full-bearded, while Alans sported either mustaches or pointed goatees.

As such, the Alans had an entirely different background and "look" than the Western tribes. They were Eastern-- they had Eastern customs, Eastern swords, Eastern armor-- and they even looked partially Eastern. To quote Ammianus Marcellinus, "Moreover, almost all of the Alans are tall and handsome with rather fair hair, frightening because of their somewhat slanting eyes." (Alemany translation, Sources on the Alans, p. 36) This may fly in the face of some who believe the Alans were some sort of Aryan super-cavalry.

The Rhoxalani and Alans burst upon the scene during the early to mid decades of the 1st century CE. Like all steppe "barbarians," they simply came out of "nowhere," although attached to geography relative to the Romans. Here's a map showing the Alan migration short of the Caspian to their final destination in Africa.
The map was created from Roman sources. But it doesn't answer the Big Question. "Where did the Alans really come from." In other words, "What were the origins of the Alans. Why did they look like they did? Who were their cultural neighbors? Who did they intermarry with? And why were their cavalry weapons and tactics unlike Rome's previous steppe opponents." Hopefully, this thread might answer some of those questions. For now, I welcome any comments.
Just for starters some think that the Alans were formed as a confederation sometime between 22-55 AD  with a Sarmatian nucleus, going by Chinese sources Hou Han Shu and the Weilue at least according to Alemany in his book Sources on the Alans. However  the fact that the Roxolani were known to western sources much earlier than that as they allied themselves with Mithradates VI weakens this theory somewhat.

  One feature of steppe peoples is that confederations are formed in a time of crisis, either as a form of defence against aggression from neighbours or due to serious natural disasters like droughts or destruction of herds meaning aggressive wars under a war chief or leader chosen by a council of elders  Rudenko in his book The Frozen Tombs of Siberia wrote "One of the causes of fighting between pastoral tribes was either drought or the so-called ‘jut’ (murrain) among the cattle, produced by exceptionally heavy snow or spring freezing after thaw that prevented the animals from getting their food. In these circumstances Kazakhs or Kirgiz in the nineteenth century, for example, would abandon their pastures and go into their neighbour’s territory and keep on going until they reached a point where the cattle could feed. If they were lucky and the weather changed they returned to their normal sites with their remaining stock; if their cattle died they had no other recourse but to attack rich neighbours and carry off part of their herds. Such an operation depended for its success on an organization commanded by a clan or tribal chief. Driving off cattle was not regarded as a felony and rustling was considered to be a special kind of profession."

So maybe we have to look back to what happened in the east in this time frame (22-55 AD) to cause different groups to unite. Yancai or Yen-ts'ai which means vast steppe in Chinese seems to be mentioned a lot but it appears that this probably refers to the Aorsi  who became vassals of the Kanju referring to people who resided in Sogdiana. There also does seem to have been some instability in the Tarim basin which caused problems in Sogdiana around 49 AD of maybe both caused a mass movement west.

Michael Kerr
Hi, Michael

No doubt Rudenko had a firm case for dissention among steppe tribes; also we can include drastic changes in climate. My belief is perhaps more mundane-- tribal expansion across a cultural frontier, thus creating a "domino effect." The formation of the Alan confederation appears to be directly related to the demise of the Saka one. I would prefer going back much earlier; and at the same time, try to discover origins of several Alan aspects which appear to be inter-related, each following the other:

a) origin of the Asiatic admixture, which appears to be Sinicization rather than proto-Mongolian influence.
b) an identification of the Pazyryk culture as seen by the Chinese. 
c) historical birth of the Chinese Type 1 "Sarmatian" sword."
d) origin of the "heavenly horse," aka the Akhal teke.
e) demise of the once-strong Saka confederation.
f) the resulting rise of the Alans as a steppe "super-power."

I believe they follow an archaeological/historical timeline beginning with the formation of the Xiongnu and the abandonment of the Altai culture (which moved southeast). These radical changes actually began in 4th to 3rd centuries B.C. I'm also speculating the Altai "Scythians" were part of the Saka culture (same customs, same dress, same tall hats worn by the women), and they were a northern extension of the Yuezhi and Wusun or at least kindred neighbors.

The last statement seems almost incredulous. But if we consider Pazyryk's archaeological evidence and combine it with the oldest ms recorded in the Hanshu, we discover an amazing connection. Originally, I believed the Pazyryk people were the Issedones mentioned by Herodotus, but they actually appear to be his "Arimaspi" (asp = horse), not the "horse-people" but the "Horse-breeding People," exactly like the Chinese-documented Yuezhi and Wusun. We see a strong trade connection between China and the Altai, not just silks but even this carriage, pictured by Rudenko as the marriage-vehicle which brought a Chinese princess to Pazyryk to marry a "Scythian" king.

Could the Yuezhi and Wusun be related to the Pazyrk Saka?  Some of the earliest references are still extant in the Hanshu, dating back to the 7th century BC; and as Taishan Yu notes, "Pre-Qin records show the Yuezhi had expanded their sphere of influence as far as Hetao in the east and the eastern end of the Altai Mountains in the west." Another and later pre-Qin reference mentions, "On the day of Jiawu the Son of Heaven crossed the steep slope of Yu (Mountain); on the day of Jihai, he arrived in the vast plain of the Yanju and Yuzhi."

Today, "Yu Mountain" is known as Yanmen Mountain in Shanxi Province just east of the Ordos. Early in the Spring and Autumn Period, the heart of Yuezhi territory was in the state of Jin; but by 403 BC, Jin was broken into the states of Han, Wei, and Zhao. By 300 BC, the Xiongnu began raiding Chinese settlements in Zhao. To thwart the Xiongnu, King Wuling built the "doorway" fortification at Yanmen Mountain, and then "modernized" his army by adding cavalry, training archers, and commanding his men to wear suitable barbarian clothing. Obviously, he hired his friendly  neighbors-- the Yuezhi-- as instructors and the primary source for horses.

Throughout these early conflicts with the Xiongnu, the Wusun and Yuezhi lived beside one another, most likely due to similar customs and language, and the Wusun appear to be a vassal tribe. Then, in 177/176 BC, the Xiongnu attacked the Yuezhi and displaced them. The Yuezhi migration created a domino effect, up-rooting the entire steppe area from Zhao to Sogdiana and even down into India for the next 150 years. Among the other principles were the Wusun, Kangju (Sogdians), and Central Asian Saka. Here's a map of what was going on:

Could these constant battles, uprooting one tribe after another, create a new federation from the disenfranchised remainder of "what was left"? Possibly? Or Probably? And am I complicating the "origin" by going back to the beginning?
As for physical descriptions, Ammianus described the eyes of the Persians as being like those of goats. Goats' eyes are very distinctive in having a horizontal slit for a pupil. Ammianus may, therefore, have been far more interested in making insults than in anthropological accuracy. Also there is the effect of fashion, I have a moustache and goatee, but I can grow a full beard. Fashion, such as tattooing, head-binding or facial hair styling, may have been used to differentiate between tribal groupings.
Well, this thread has already provided some excellent reading.

d) origin of the "heavenly horse," aka the Akhal teke.
Wasn't the Akhal-Teke thought to be from Nisaean bloodlines?  

"In front of the king went first a thousand horsemen, picked men of the Persian nation - then spearmen a thousand, likewise chosen troops, with their spearheads pointing towards the ground - next ten of the sacred horses called Nisaean, all daintily caparisoned. (Now these horses are called Nisaean, because they come from the Nisaean plain, a vast flat in Media, producing horses of unusual size.)" Herodotus, Histories.
This was the first Western source that mentions the Nisaean mid 5thC BC.

The Chinese called them 'Tien Ma' which equates to Heavenly Horse (I think).
(01-05-2016, 08:43 AM)Urselius Wrote: [ -> ]As for physical descriptions, Ammianus described the eyes of the Persians as being like those of goats. Goats' eyes are very distinctive in having a horizontal slit for a pupil. Ammianus may, therefore, have been far more interested in making insults than in anthropological accuracy. Also there is the effect of fashion, I have a moustache and goatee, but I can grow a full beard. Fashion, such as tattooing, head-binding or facial hair styling, may have been used to differentiate between tribal groupings.

Thanks for this, Martin

Would Ammianus compliment the Alan's relative beauty ("tall and handsome") and then make a derogatory remark within the same sentence (his reference to their eyes)? I would say he describes them fairly, simply ending with his description of a gaze which appeared "fierce."

As your noticed, the difference in hair-styles, goatees rather than full beards, and tattoos, all contribute to a "fashion look" which various tribes may have chosen to distinguish themselves from the "others." The same appears to be true of the tall hats and headdresses worn by the Saka when compared to styles worn by Western "Pontic" Scythians.
Evidently, I chose the wrong "button" and couldn't add illustrations. Confused
Perhaps the most distinguishing example of "fashion" would be the tall hats of the Saka. The women, in particular, wore the tallest hats or headdresses. Variants of this style have been found at Issyk, Tuva, Ukok, and Pazyryk, in other words from eastern Saka areas from below the Seven Rivers all the way up to the Altai. Here are some examples:

Above is the famous "Golden Woman" of Issyk Kul, 3rd cent. BC. She wears the tallest hat or coiffure yet found in the East, and also notice the long sword hanging from the left, plus a typical "Altaic"-styled akinakes worn on the right outer thigh.

Here is a similar hat or headdress worn by an Altai priestess. This belt buckle has an Ordos origin, considered to be from Chinese extraction. Ordos art is so distinctive, it can be differentiated from works carved by the Saka.

A reconstructive painting of the Ukok Queen, again a similar tall hat. Not pictured but interesting, she also wore thigh-high boots. (whether she carried a whip is inconsequential).

These variants, from three different Saka locations illustrate a cultural connection we do not see linked the West. The culture extended from the Altai, down along western China, to the western Takla Makan, and into the BMC (Bactria Margiana Complex), and it proclaimed, "This is who we are."  All of the tribes, within a geographical and lineal cultural extension, included the so-called Altai "Scythians," the Yuezhi-Wusun, and the Seven Rivers/Ili Valley/Ferghana Saka.

These exceedingly-Eastern tall hats were cultural symbols, possibly matrilineal, and extended into the later Mongol and Tuvan cultures and remain with us today. The above photo was taken in the Altai c. 1907. For more views of these amazing Saka-origin hats, check out YouTube videos on traditional costume "Tuva Throat Singing."
 Hi Alan, I can’t really comment on a) the admixture of the Alans, I have always thought it was through intermarriage with Eastern proto-Mongolian tribes but Hsiung-nu and Wusun leaders did marry Chinese brides as a matter of prestige or c) as my knowledge of swords is not good.

 In regard to b) the Pazyryk culture I think Rudenko links them to the Saka although they probably had extensive trading links with their neighbours the Wusun and probably the Yuehchi as well. Going by some of the bodies found in the bigger barrows for the chiefs and their wives some of the males  had mongoloid features but thick curly hair while others had false beards so there must have been some intermarriage with other groups. One physical characteristic of the chiefs was that most were very tall.

 The robbers who broke into and robbed the Pazyryk tombs, allowing the ice to freeze a lot of the bodies and goods have inadvertedly done archaeologists a favour and Pazyryk gives us some indication of various aspects of Saka/Scythian life in regard to their goods, lifestyles and their livestock.

 Firstly the high Altai was not really suitable for wheeled transport so pack animals seemed to be the main means of transport when moving from summer to winter pastures and that is shown with the number of leather bags to carry goods. The Pazyryk people probably lived in wooden structures made of birch as shown by the excellent craftsmanship of the timber graves. Carpets and felt hangings seem to have been used as wall coverings to block draughts as the famous Pazyryk carpet didn’t show signs of wear due to foot traffic.

 The Carriage you mentioned from Kurgan 5 was either a ceremonial vehicle or as you mentioned a carriage for a Chinese bride as it was found with four horses which was a common feature with early Chinese bride dowries that brides are taken to their future husband in a wagon pulled by four horses. It was probably dismantled to even get up to the Altai area as it seems there was a sort of pulley system to carry materials to build the barrows in the first place as the earth was excavated and then enclosed with birch wood. There was a female buried with the chief and his horses in Barrow 5 but identification was not possible for some reason and Rudenko is not sure if she was his first wife.

 We learn from the tombs that the Saka used purses, had cushions for stools, used lamps, used leather flasks, played musical instruments and although they did not have tobacco it seems by the utensils found they liked smoking pot for recreation.

 Their main occupation was stockbreeding where they herded sheep both white and black wool breeds, goats to a lesser extent, cows, yaks and most of all horses. It seems they raised poultry going by how they were depicted on a lot of materials and blankets. They enjoyed making and eating cheese and grains and apparently coriander. They also enjoyed hunting, mainly deer and sable and used the deer fur to stuff their  saddles.

 Their main occupation and big love was horse breeding. They bred horses for meat and milk and as pack animals but they prided themselves in their riding horses. We find that they marked their horses to prove ownership by knicking the horses ears. Most of the items found in the barrows were associated with their horses, saddles, shabacks and various attachments and harness. They enjoyed plaiting their horses tails and manes and their riding horses unlike the rest of the herds were stabled in the bitter winters and fed grains while the rest had to fend for themselves out in the field enduring droughts, famines and severe winters as shown in the hoof rings. I suppose the prized horses could have been linked to Turkomen (Akhal Tekes) and ownership changed hands as the horses got older. Pics below of drawing of nicks in ears, plaited tails and some well preserved horses which look similar to Akhal Tekes.



Rudenko mentions that there are subtle differences in grave goods of Pazyryk and this indicates that the region was probably occupied by not one but several tribes. Each tribe would naturally have its own territory but there would have been territory that would have been shared by all in common for herds and water. Unfortunately there must have been trouble now and then as the unfortunate chief who was buried in barrow 2 seems to have been killed by a sagaris, going by the puncture hole in his skull and then scalped. Tough life in the Altai.

 They may have had contact with Chinese traders as silk and mirrors of Chinese origin have been found at Pazyryk. Rudenko thinks that the Pazyryk people probably acted as middlemen selling furs and horses to possibly Wusun who probably sold them to Han China and they probably traded horses to northern neighbours for furs like sable and otter as well as grain as their location wasn’t suitable for growing grain. Sorry about the long answer about Pazyryk which probably have nothing to do with Alans but the frozen barrows do answer a few questions about steppe peoples and the fact they did enjoy the luxuries, even ones who adapted to a semi-sedentary life on the high Altai.

Unfortunately we cannot tell what the weaponry of the Pazyyrk people was as it seems that was one area where the tomb robbers were successfu.. I think there was a broken Scythian type bow and some broken arrows, a couple of Scythian type shields and a dagger but no swords or other weapons so that makes it hard to compare them to other groups. 

 As to Hsiung-nu, due to Qin Chinese aggression it seems they formed a confederation like most steppe tribes do in times of crisis round about 209 BC and as they expanded west they pushed the Saka west and south as well as the Yuechi and Wusun. I don’t know where the Alans fit in but I suspect that their origin  lay north of Sogdiana near the territory of the Kanju. Smile 
Michael Kerr
Back to you, Rodger

As to horses, you noted, "The Chinese called them 'Tien Ma' which equates to Heavenly Horse (I think)."

You thought correctly. The Mongols used the same term. In the Mongolian-language film Mongol, Timugen sits with his family, and he proudly explains to his daughter, "This is good meat. It's from ma. Ma." In other words, it's good horsemeat.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Persian Nisaean breed and the Altai/Yuezhi-Wusun horses were very close in origin. Russian archaeologists carefully measured the skulls and bones of the "royal" Altai breed and noticed they were almost identical to the modern Akhal-teke; and as such, we have an idea what the Heavenly Horse also looked like. Through cultural trade and borrowing, the Chinese adopted the Altaic/Wusun/Yuezhi style of crenelated mane and tail wrapping.

Here we have a Saka warrior depicted on a Pazyrk yurt or log cabin hanging. The mustached rider is astride a mount with either two or three crenelations trimmed into its mane. Although Wuling the king of Zhao acquired cavalry horses from the Yuezhi, I rather doubt they supplied him with this royal type, although perhaps "culls" from the breed's herd. We can advance to the next recorded instance, the time of Han Emperor Wu Di.

This is an ink rubbing from a Han Dynasty brick in my personal collection. Here we see the same crenelation as found on the Pazyryk horseman's horse, and even the same tail wrapping which causes the tail to rise upward and then bend at an acute angle. This illustration depicts the Heavenly Horse, ridden only by the Chinese royal aristocracy. They were the horses Emperor Wu Di acquired from the Wusun and then the Yuezhi.

The Chinese continued receiving Heavenly Horses from Ferghana into the Turkic period (after the Saka/Alans moved south and north). This Tang Dynasty horse has the same crenelations as the Altaic and Han examples; and while the tail is wrapped, the style is somewhat different than the earlier versions.

Now we turn to an illustration of an Alanic warrior after the Alans arrived in the Bosphorus. Amazingly (or not) he rides a horse with the same crenelations seen on the Altai/Saka horse and the Han's Heavenly Horse. Like tall women's hats, these are styles that link a cultural progression. Through a stylistic cultural progression, this Bosphoric Alan warrior was connected to the Saka warrior in the Altai.

To me, historic (a priori) ethnographical pictures are irrefutable. No guesswork here, no outrageous suppositions. We don't see crenelated manes in cultures not connected to the Saka, Chinese, or Alans, with the exception of the Sassanians (which apparently borrowed the style from the Alans). We are looking at a cultural progression from the Saka to the so-called "Sarmatians" which crossed into Roman territory. (I can't tell you how much I hate the ambiguous term of "Sarmatian.")

Wow! Thanks, Michael.

The horse head pictured to the left in "fig 82" looks Amazingly like an Akhal-teke. All of this additional info really helps. I often fail to be explicit or skim over important details.

Agreed, the Asiatic admixture within the easternmost Saka and Yuezhi/Wusun certainly included Mongolian and even Hsiungnu (the last "possibly" Mongoloid). I guess I was relying quite heavily on the Chinese royalty connection to various chieftains. Most of these royal brides seem to have been given in trade for Heavenly Horses. The Chinese also acquired alfalfa, bringing wagonloads of it back to feed these prized mounts. The picture I'm getting is a love-hate relationship between the Saka and Chinese, Neither histories, the Hanshu or Shiji, mention consistent warfare between the Chinese and Yuezhi or Wusun.

The Saka and Pontic Scythians evidently did like to smoke pot, and a few shots of ephedra-laced hauma cleared their throats. When you look at their smoking and drinking habits, their style of dress, their wonderful horses, and all of the "luxuries" (oil lamps, comfy cushions, four-legged tables, etc.), it's quite apparent they lived a great "barbarian" life.  Big Grin
If I may be permitted to add to the tail sheath topic. Below is an image of a tail sheath and mane covers as well as a whip taken from one of the barrows at Pazyryk.


Alanus that image that you posted from the tomb at Kerch of the Siraces/Alan rider approaching a seated woman is very similar to the scene from the Pazyryk carpet. One of the features of the bodies found at Pazyryk was that both males and females were shaved and then the wigs and false beards were then placed with the bodies for their journey to the afterlife and as you can see in the carpet scene the woman seated is bald and seems to be holding a branch (probably indicating the tree of life) so I think the crenelated mane had deep religious meaning to the Indo-European nomads both Yuehchi/Tocharians and the various Indo-Iranians. Funnily Sarmatians were known to wear short cloaks like the rider in the carpet scene. Even my avatar image Tryphon of Tanais is wearing the short cloak as well as Sarmatian/Iazyges rider depicted on tombstone at Chester below.




 In regard to the heavenly horses below is an early rock painting of a "heavenly horse or Blood sweating horse" turcoman mare and her foal at Aravan, Osh in Kyrgyzstan in the Fergana Valley dating from 1st Century BC. Smile


Michael Kerr
I think that there was considerable cultural pressure on Classical authors to portray barbarians as being as "other" as possible, especially in their physical appearance. There were certainly racial stereotypes in Roman writing. Caligula is supposed to have rounded up a group of the tallest Gauls he could find, these had their hair dyed red in order for them to be passed off as German captives. I think this says far more about Roman prejudice and expectations than it does about the actual appearance of the average German or Gaul. Ammianus could have been factual in his description of the Alans, but he was certainly fantasising about the Persians and insulting them, no human beings have goat-like eyes.

The huge strides made recently in ancient DNA extraction and processing will soon answer many questions about ethnicities. I expect many surprises!
I don't think Ammianus liked any barbarians or "non-Romans" but he probably wanted to use his description of the Alans as a contrast to the barbaric Huns.

Michael Kerr
Martin and Michael,

I think you're both spot-on. For instance, Ammianus' description of the Huns degrades them to sub-human. They're the Neanderthals of his "modern" age. Another writer comes to mind-- Themistius, who derided the Goths to a position of wild Scythians... when in fact they were perhaps the most civilized "barbarians" at the edge of the Empire.

Roman prejudice aside, this thread seems to give an accurate portrayal of the Saka and early Alans which we didn't get from the likes of Ammianus or Themistius. Pun not intended, but we're actually getting the "picture." The amazing cultural continuity noticed by Michael between the illustrations of the Pazyryk warrior and later Bosphoran warrior is striking. Both "priestesses" appear to be shaved bald. In the Altai, the Ukok queen (or priestess, or whatever she was) was also bald; and I believe this shaving was done to allow their extraordinarily-tall hats (or wigs, or a combination of both) to be worn without slipping off.

Earlier, I imbedded an illustration of the gold belt buckle showing a woman wearing such a hat or coiffure. Here is the "full" picture (below).
The entire buckle is now seen; and it contains so many of the cultural "quirks" we've mentioned in the various posts in this thread. Under that tall hat, we see no hairline on the woman. She is bald. The two horses have crenelated manes. The tree in the background probably represents the "tree of life." She embraces the head of perhaps a dying warrior, readying him for his journey. I do believe, that the woman on this gold "Siberian" buckle, and the woman in the Sirace Alan wall painting, plus the actual costume worn by the Golden Woman of Issyk, all represent not a queen but each tribe's "High Warrior Priestess." As such, the Ukok "queen" probably falls into the same category. Both warriors have mustaches only; no scruffy Scythian beards for these guys.

What we're not getting from a written record, we're finding through depictions on cultural artifacts. Below, is a detailed illustration of the gold "Wusun Diadem." Like the so-called "Siberian" buckle, it was crafted in the Ordos by Northern Chinese. Ordos art has a very distinctive style of interlocking branches and leaves. Here we see a woman riding a horned dragon. Notice what appears to be a short cloak extending from her shoulder. The significance of this piece puzzles me, so any thoughts are welcome.
This diadem was in the Kangali grave. Y.A. Zadneprovskiy notes, "A famous [Wusun] find is the Kangali burial of a female shaman discovered at an altitude of 2,300 m., near Almaty, containing jewelry, clothing, head-dress, and nearly 300 gold objects." Another find in Tenlik in eastern Zletysu contained the grave of a high-ranking warrior (no hint as to gender), whose clothing had been decorated with around 100 golden bosses.

The two Wusun graves show an amazing cultural link to the Saka kurgan grave of the Golden Woman. On her clothing, we find hundreds of gold bosses. Additionally, in view of the term "shaman," I'm adding a photo of the Golden Woman's gold rings and a close-up of her tall hat. (To anyone new to RAT, simply "click" on the picture and it will enlarge in a separate box. You can then "right-click" on the larger image and save it for your files.)
Alanus just about your point in a previous post.

d) Origin of the Akhal-Teke

 The Akhal-Teke is one of the oldest breeds in the world descended from the now extinct Turkoman breed which originated in Central Asia. They were probably the horses used by some of the earliest heavy cavalry like the Massagetae and their Khorezmian (Chorasmian) neighbours. I shall post a fragment of a terracotta jug from Kol Krylgan Kala representing a 4th century BC Chorasmian warrior using a contus with both hands.

 I don’t think that horses were classified in breeds in Roman times. Vegetius classed all the different types of horses of his time by the people who bred and rode them like Hunnisci, Cappadoces, Hispani, Persae, Numidae & Armeni. Horses back then were bred for local tastes, requirements and conditions. 

  Herodotus mentioned that the Niseans originated in the plains of Media yet Strabo talks about two areas firstly Armenia with its rich pasturages as the home of a “Nesean or Nycean” horse as well as the area Hircania south of the Caspian Sea near the Oxus River. Either they were different breeds or maybe stud farms were set up in Armenia by the Achaemenids and horses transferred for strategic reasons, to make good use of the excellent pasturage and protect these horses from nomad attacks and raids from the Sogdiana region. Raiding and stealing quality horses was always a way of life to the early nomads who measured worth by the number of horses. Fines for murder and theft were paid in horses. It seems strange that in Herodotus’s tale that there was only 10 Nisean horses amongst his numerous cavalry so Nisean horses may have been hard to come by because of the dreaded nomads which probably included the ancestors of the Alans.

I am not sure if the horses of Ferghana were Nisean horses as large strong thick set horses are figured on many Persian sculptures not the sleek greyhound like Turkoman horses. The wealthy and nobles would want bigger horses for battle but as a rule Central Asian horses were judged for their endurance or how long a distance they could travel in a day. The popular colours for Altai horses at least to the Pazyryk people were chestnut and brown, sometimes with gold hues, maybe bay horses but rarely jet black, but without white patches on the hoofs which in the days before horse shoes indicated weak hoof horns. Even Marco Polo talking about the Turkoman breed wrote "They breed a great many excellent horses, they are swift, never shod, though they run on mountains and on stony ground, on very bad roads, because their legs are superb and their hooves very hard. They can carry their riders down slopes so steep that other horses will not face them, or can only be made to do so  with difficult, and this they do at speed".

Osset (Alan) poetry has preserved the record of 2 breeds, both of medium size, tough and resistant. One is called the “khouare” and is said to be very swift and in external appearance it resembled the Akhal-Teke. The 2nd breed is called “arash” and is said to be similar to the present Caucasian breeds like the Kabardin. (Information from An Early History of Horsemanship by A. Azzaroli.)

 In regards to alfalfa (Medicago sativa) it seems to have originated in Media and Strabo wrote that it constituted the chief food source of horses. The Iranians called it (aspasti or aspastu) literally “horse food or fodder” (There is that designation for horse again Alanus, Aspa) probably spread by the Persians to Asia Minor and Ferghana Valley where it thrived as well as the horses it nourished.
Michael Kerr
Thanks, Michael

The Akhal-teke does appear to have a Saka origin, with the Massagetae and Korezmians as part of that confederation. On the other hand, the Persian Nisean appears to be a stockier heavy-boned breed. For good reason, the Akhal-teke was favored for its size (15.5-16 hands high), its tremendous endurance, and as you noted, its hard hooves. It was probably the breed used by Tomyris when she lured the forces of Cyrus into a canyon where they were defeated by heavy cavalry. (see Julius Frontinus, since Herodotus skips this tidbit.)

I cannot comment knowledgeably on the origin of alfalfa. However, I don't see how the Persians ever reached Ferghana to introduce it there as prime fodder... simply because, in any given century, they would have to pass through established Saka territory to get there. The plant was prized, and the Chinese eventually imported alfalfa seeds, planting them extensively in the Emperor's fields.

Perhaps now we should turn to the Saka themselves. From info on above posts, we have a broad idea of their customs and personal appearance, which can be augmented by surviving artifacts.

Here we have a "retouched" portrait of a Saka or Yuezhi male from the western Tarim Basin. Whether he is typical or atypical is open to debate, considering the 20th century historians' "Aryan bias" for all people blue-eyed.

A Saka warrior from a textile embroidery, again somewhat Indo-Iranian in his features. Wait a minute! Is that another gold diadem?

A Yuezhi or Wusun warrior embroidered on a rug from the Ordos. Rugs were prized by the Xiongnu, received from the Yuezhi, Wuson, and Kangju, as "collateral" for not getting attacked at any given moment. Quite often, these rugs are found in burials also containing small brass buckles. The buckles were used by the Xiongnu on their clothing, but originally these buckles were on the straps that bound the rolled Yuezhi rugs.

Well, we have 2 blue-eyed Saka and a third Saka who might be "something else"-- fitting roughly into the 30% Mongoloid admixture. If anything is consistent, we again view goatees and mustaches but no Scythian beards. So far, we've established where these tribes originated, what they looked like, and even finding a cloudy origin of their horses.

Lets continue the course of events. We left the Yuezhi in trouble when attacked by the Xiongnu in 177/176 BC. Fleeing westward, the Yuezhi plowed through the Wusun, killing their chieftain in the process and breaking a centuries-old association. The Xiongnu then attacked the Wusun. To make a long story shorter, the next fifty years were spent in push-and-shove until the Wusun settled in an area from the Ili Valley to the northern shores of Lake Issyk. Driven by the Wusun, the Yuezhi moved further west past Daxia into Ferghana. At this time, roughly 130 BC, the Chinese sent an envoy to the Wusun and Yuezhi in an attempt to reestablish friendly relations.

That envoy was Shang Qian, sent to the far west by Emperor Wu-di. Arriving back in China, Shang Qian pinpointed the locations of the Wusun and Yuezhi. But more important, he described a powerful country beyond, populated by a hitherto unknown people in the land of Kangju (Sogdiana)... a tribe of heavy-armored equestrians similar to the Roxolani. They were not native Sogdians, but Saka/Yuezhi who had broken away from their respective tribes.

Shang Qian returns to China with representatives of the Kang-ju (the Sogdian Saka). The painting is reasonably accurate, and Please notice-- no blue eyes.
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