Amid swine flu, sinking economies and other sorrows of the modern world, losing track of when life was really tough can be easy. Lucky for us, we have archaeologists to put things in a little perspective.
Consider life on the high steppes of Central Asia, the Altai Mountains, around 500 B.C., in modern-day Mongolia. Back then, it was the home of the Pazyryk peoples, horse-riding nomads who lived next door to the not-so-friendly Scythians. In fact, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, in The Histories, described the Scythians as warriors who tangled with tribes of Amazons, practiced human sacrifice, scalping and cannibalism of their enemies. A lot more aggravating than the neighbor who borrows your lawn mower, in other words.
Archaeologists know the Pazyryk from burial mounds, or tumuli, of larch wood covered with stones, "in which the bodies of Pazyryk warriors were buried with their horses and their weapons, such as battle-axes, daggers, swords, and bows and arrows," according to a study in the July Journal of Archaeological Science, which describes seven of these graves.
"These people led violent lives," says Xavier Jordana of Spain's Universitat Auto'noma de Barcelona, who led the two-year study effort. At the burial sites, which he describes as "typical," an international team uncovered the remains of 10 people in all, seven men, one woman and two children. Similar to past Pazyryk burials, a horse was buried with each individual, as well as a ceramic bowl, iron knife and back bone of a sheep or goat. "Small sheets of gold were also always found next to the skull," says the study. Weaponry included "pointed battle-axes with wooden handles, short daggers, both of bronze or iron, and trilobate arrowheads made of bone or bronze."
Also typical, "Seven individuals exhibited a total of 14 traumatic injuries," notes the study. Two of the men showed evidence of healed battle-axe wounds on their skulls. Five of the individuals, including the women and one child, were killed by axes or dagger wounds. One man was shot in the head with an arrow. "This is not a large sample," Jordana says. "But half of them died violently. That has to mean something."
Herodotus had described human sacrifice and warfare as common among nomads in his day, so Jordana and his colleagues analyzed the wounds they saw in an attempt to understand exactly how these people died. "Were they fighting battles or sacrificed," he asks. "Herodotus is known as the 'Father of History' but he is also called the 'Father of Liars,' so we wanted to see."
Raids, not warfare, marked the deaths of the people who died violently, concludes the study. "A lot of the trauma was to the back, and comes in all directions," Jordana says. "These were people caught in surprise attacks." Herodotus didn't lie about scalping however, judging from shallow cut marks on one middle-aged man's skull. Call it CSI: Mongolia. Similar evidence for scalping turned up in another "ice mummy" burial from the region, Jordana notes.
"These were burials of a warrior class of people," Jordana says, but they fit with the pattern of violent lives lived in the past. "They buried women and children with weapons. It's not clear (that) these were Amazons, but they led very hard lives, compared to today."