Heracles fighting the Amazons, circa 530 BC.

It is said the boundless steppes of Asia gave flight to tales of heroes and heroines because the conditions there are so harsh. From about 700 BC to AD 500, the vast territory of Scythia, stretching from the Black Sea to China, was home to diverse but culturally related nomads. Known as Scythians to Greeks, Saka to the Persians, and Xiongnu to the Chinese, the steppe tribes were masters of horses and archery. Scythian boys and girls learned to ride and shoot so that everyone could hunt and make war.

The horse and the bow were the equalizers: women could be just as tough, fast, and deadly as men. Indeed, the remains of 300 warrior women were found in more than 1,000 excavations of Scythian kurgans (burial mounds), from Ukraine to Central Asia—a spectacular archaeological discovery. So far, DNA testing of the skeletons buried with weapons shows that 25 to 37 percent of Scythian girls

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  • ADRIENNE MAYOR is Research Scholar, Classics and History and Philosophy of Science, in the Classics Department of Stanford University. She is author, most recently of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World.
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