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The Scytho-Iranian hypothesis originated in the 19th century to link the genesis of Scyths and Sakas with Indo-European genesis. It challenged the traditional association of Scythians with the nomadic Türks, by establishing a chain of linguistic arguments linking the Scyths and the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family of languages. In its uttermost case the Scytho-Iranian hypothesis ascribes Scythians an ancient form of the Ossetic language.
History of the hypothesis
In the pre-1700’s, the Scythians were known from the works of the ancient writers, principally Herodotus. At that time, the accepted wisdom was that the Herodotus’ Scythians were the precursors of Türks, with the Türks branching into Slavic, Mongol, Finnish, Baltic, Ugrian, and unspecified other variations. There was a millennia-long string of historical references specifically linking Herodotus’ Scythians with various Türkic tribes, e.g. Huns, Türks, Khazars etc., so there was no need to question this postulate (Zosimus "Unns are Royal Scythians"; Menander Protector "Türks, in antiquity called Sakas"; Procopius of Caesarea "peoples called in antiquity Cimmerians, now are called Utigurs"; Theophanes the Confessor "Scythians, who also are named Unns", "Türks, in antiquity called Massagets"; Rus Primary Chronicle "from Scythians, i.e. Khazars, came so-called Bolgars". Between 400es and 1500es Byzantine sources call Σκΰθαι twelve different Türkic peoples (G. Moravcsik, Byzantinoturcica II, p.236-39)). That is, until young Russia expanded its control to the N.Pontic belt, kurgans and their contents became known, and the question of their attribution came to the attention of the Western scientists. Archeological discoveries in the 19th c. showed that Herodotus and other historians faithfully recorded specks of the history of the Eurasian peoples.
At about 1805 a Polish aristocrat Jan Potocki in Russian service assigned Julius Heinrich von Klaproth (1783-1835) for an ethnographic journey to the recently seized N. Caucasus. Von Klaproth who published a work "Reise in den Kaukasus und nach Georgien unternommen in den Jahren 1807 und 1808" (I-II, Halle and Berlin 1812-14); in an appendix, entitled "Kaukasische Sprachen", von Klaproth for the first time formulated a hypothesis of Scytho-Sarmatian origin of Ossetic language. In his later work, "Memoire dans lequel on prouve 1'identite des Ossetes, peuplade du Caucase, avec les Alains du moyen-age" (Nouvelles annales des voyages 16, 1822, p. 243-56), von Klaproth completed the sequence Scytho-Sarmatians > Alans > Ossetes.
The Scytho-Ossetian hypothesis was furthered by K. Zeiss in a work published in the 1837 in Munich with suggestion to identify Scythians with Persian-lingual tribes based on religion, territory of Persians and the common Scythian and Persian words. By efforts of Vs.Miller and V.I.Abayev these results were finally narrowed to exclusively Ossetic language as a successor of the Scythian. More than that, Iranian attribution of the Scythian language has been confirmed by research of M.Fasmer and V.I.Abaev (Abaev V.I.,1965). In the development of the Scytho-Iranian hypothesis "concept about Iranian language of Scythians dominates unconditionally. Anything that does not advance this thesis is excluded beforehand from the area of Scythian studies" (Petrov V.P., 1968).
The Scytho-Iranian hypothesis met a stiff resistance, including from prominent scientists, not only because it belittled the classical authors and their testimony, but also on more fundamental bases. Until the publication in the1949 in the former USSR of V.I.Abaev seminal work, "Ossetian Language and Folklore", the Scytho-Iranian-Ossetian hypothesis was contested from many angles, but in the 1950s discussions faded, and Scytho-Iranian hypothesis became a mainstream scientific concept in the Western Europe and the only one in the USSR. The USSR Academy of Sciences' publication by V.I. Abaev, which declared Ossetian language to be a Northern branch of the Persian language, came at the crest of the Stalinist campaign against “ancientization” of the Türkic history, decreed in the 1944, at the time when the USSR Academy of Sciences was a subservient department of an autocratic state apparatus.
After the demise of the USSR weakened the compliance enforcement, the previously hidden results of the dissenting studies started to be published, opposing the Scytho-Iranian hypothesis with new converging observations and insights born by scientists with close familiarity with the language, culture and traditions, like the work of Zaur Gasanov "Royal Scythians".
Structure of the hypothesis
The Scytho-Iranian hypothesis is a strictly linguistical innovation, created in isolation of any ethnological evidence, and in this respect is a uniquely stand-alone scientific concept. The premises of the hypothesis support its conclusions, and the conclusions are aligned in a sequential logical chain with no parallel branches. The premises and conclusions are:
1. Not Az-eri, whose endoethnonym is Azeri, and not Balkars, one of whose endoethnonyms is As, but Ossets, whose endoethnonyms are Irons and Digors, are true As people. Both terms Ovs and Osset are historically and etymologically exoethnonyms.
2. Endoethnonym Ases is interchangeable with Alans, so historical Ases are historical Alans, which makes Ossets-Ases Alans.
3. Alans are documented to be Sarmatian people, who in turn are documented to be a branch of Scythians, which makes Ossets-Ases Sarmatians and a branch of Scythians.
4. Analysis of clearly non-Greek inscriptions collected in the 19th century in the remains of N.Pontic Olbia and Neapolis Scythian, performed by V.I.Abaev working with the 300-word list assembled by Teutonics philologist Karl Viktor Müllenhoff (1866), and Russian philologist-Iranist Count Vsevold Fedorovich Miller (1886), demonstrated that the majority of the samples find a phonetic resemblance in some of a dozen Indo-European languages, using predominantly the Persian language. In those few cases when no phonetic resemblance could be found in any of the examined languages, V.I.Abaev was able to find an Ossetic phonetic resemblance. This established a scientific linguistical link between the Ossetic and Scythian languages, superimposed on Persian-Scythian linguistical link.
5. Stipulation that the Ossetian language is Indo-European, Iranian, Northern Iranian Branch.
6. A single "Zelenchuk tombstone inscription" found in Karachai-Balkaria, interpreted as Ossetian inscription, served as a converging evidence of Ossetian-linguality of Alans.
For a scientific theory, the Scytho-Iranian hypothesis turned out completely unproductive. Other then sporadic anecdotal confirmation, in the last 150 years no solid additional evidence came to light, in spite of vast geography and huge volumes of archeological research, and dedicated efforts to find such evidence.
Objections to the hypothesis
While the Scytho-Iranian hypothesis is exclusively linguistic, the objections come from a number of disciplines, including methodology and linguistics.
The methodological criticism is of the most fundamental nature, questioning the provenance of the lexical lists, inability to re-examine artifacts, an absence of independent confirmation, and complete absence of paleographical studies, graphological analyses, expert confirmations, and instrumented dating of the artifacts. The research methodology is criticized for absence of any systemic approach, ignoring alternatives, nonexistent statistical analyses, and total absence of critical peer reviw. Some of the criticisms directed at the founders of the hypothesis extend to the contemporary works that scrutinize the sources only from Scytho-Iranian or Scytho-Ossetian positions.
The linguistical criticisms, other than the general objection to randomness of the targeted searches and absence of any criteria to evaluate suggested candidates, address those few documented Scythian words with translation recorded by ancient sources. The nomadic Arimaspi, living above Issedones and south of extreme northerners Boreas, have a transparent semantics for squinted-eyed peoples, "Arim + spu", in Türkic "Half-(closed) + eye", versus semantically senseless etymology tied to an islet in the Sea of Marmara. A derrogative nature of the term Arimaspi indicates its exoethnonym nature. Timewise, this term concur with the documented penetration of Far Eastern tribes into the Central Asia. Herodotus 4.110 explains two words, "Oior being Scythic for "man," and pata for "to slay"". These are straightforward Türkic words, "ar/ir/er" for "man, husband" and "pata" for "kill". The "ar/ir/er" with a meaning “men, people” is a componenent of such compound ethnonyms as Suar, Bulgar, Azeri, Khazar, Akathyr etc. In Germanic language group, provenance of which is being studied nowdays, the semantical unit "er" also has the same semantic meaning "man" in forming verbal nouns, like "teacher". The same straightforward etymology was offered for the ethnonyms named by the classical sources: Ashkuza/Ishkuza is As-guzes, a transparent ethnonym for As tribes, where "guz" is Türkic "tribe", Budini is an appropriate exoethnonym, from Türkic "budun" for "folk, people", for ethnically different Finnish tribes, putatively the ancient Mordvinians. The systematic nature, simplicity and preciseness of Türkic etymology versus mind-boggling randomness of Scytho-Iranian etymology provide ammunition for sound linguistical reproval.
The other, non-linguistical critique generally belongs to ethnological field, combining literary, archeological, and ethnological sources. A line of these arguments include the use of conical hats, composite bows, portable homes, horse husbandry, tamgas, kurgan burials, sour horse milk, a peculiar milking device in a shape of a flute, meaty diet, leather boots, meridional coaching, central cemeteries, religious rites associated with prominent trees and mountains, wrestling traditions, bride-groom wrestling, identical dress style between sexes, last rites procession around a country of a deseased leader, Scythian animal art, belts and harnesses essential in nomadic life, cauldrons and utensils, voluntary confederation type political structure, equal rights for women, and eternal mercenaries in all surrounding states. Even though some elements of each of these traits were found between peoples historically interacting with Scythians, none of the Indo-Iranian peoples are documented in the historical times to have even a small fraction of the typical Scythian ethnological traits. Instead, the Indo-Iranian tribes are documented as agricultural, sedentary, grain-consuming, never mastering long-distance horse husbandry, non-meat eaters and non-milk drinkers, never mastering composite bows, with distributed cemeteries, forced political autocratic society, forceful male domination, positively not wearing conical hats, and employing mounted mercenary armies. The ethnological argument of the critics points to the fact that instead of the Indo-Iranian tribes, these ethnological traits are inherent to the Türkic history and culture.
The integrity of the chain logic in the Scytho-Iranian hypothesis depends on a stand-alone integrity of each logical link. The opponents of the hypothesis point to these broken links:
1. Before the Russian conquest, the name “Osset, Ossetia” did not exist. The etymology of the Kartvellian “Ovs” is not known to have anything to do with the historical Ases. The association of Ossets and Ases was a product of von Klaproth slanted vision.
2. Historical records indicate that As tribes were at some time members of Alan-lead confederation, and Alan-As symbiosis may have continued after dismemberment of the Alan confederation at about 360 AD, but equating literally Alans and Ases is not supported by historical records, and is a product of unencumbered interpretation.
3. A postulate that Sarmatians were one of the Scythian tribes and the Alans were one of the Sarmatian tribes desribes cultural and linguistical links, and not a political unity of differing linguistical groups, is uniformely recognized and not disputed.
4. A presumption that the words collected by Teutonologist Müllenhoff (1866) actually belong to Scytho-Sarmatian language is highly dubious. The best that may be known for a fact is that these are unknown words in unknown languages. Until at least a meaningful portion of the sentences are deciphered, any linguistical attribution has a hoax character.
5. Ossetian is an agglutinating type language with phonetics, morphology, lexicon, semantics and syntax of the Kartvelian-Adygian languages. V.I.Abaev’s proclamation of the Ossetian language as an Iranian language, of which it has only 10%, or 400 word vocabulary, with additional 10% lexicon traced to non-Iranian Indo-European languages (V.I.Abaev p.103), had nothing to do with the linguistic properties of the Ossetian language, but as an unforeseen consequence assigned the ancient Altaian tribes to speak an Adygo-Kartvelian type language. If a 80% Adygo-Kartvellian language was spread from Baikal to the Alps, and from Persia to Urals, as is stipulated by the Scytho-Iranian hypothesis, it magically vanished without a trace.
6. Zelenchuk inscription, reported by Vs. Miller and V.I.Abaev as inscribed in poorly written and broken Ossetian and belonging to Alans, turned out to be a common Türkic epitaph composed in Türkic traditions of the time.
7. The Scytho-Iranian hypothesis, taken literally, would predict some genetic continuity from the ancient Indo-Iranian Scythians to their modern Indo-Iranian descendents. But archeological and genetic studies performed up to date consistently fail this test, and instead consistently point to Uralic-Altaic genetic make-up (Voevoda M.I. et al. "Reconstruction ..."), detested by Iranist proponents for its Mongoloid/Lapponoid component unbecoming for pure "Arian" Indo-Europeans.
The Scytho-Iranian hypothesis holds that the Scythians were illiterate. This stipulation is very doubtful, because Scythans for millenia were intermeshed with many literate nations, including Assyrians, Medes, Parthians, Persians, Greeks and Romans, as traders, mercenaries, allies, and cultural partners, and could not escape the benefits afforded by literacy for accounting for payments, tributes, diplomatic correspondence, and other benefits for state and personal use. The inscription on a silver dish from Issyk kurgan shows that already in the 5th c. BC the Scythians used writing for personal needs. A. Amanjolov traces the origins of the Scythan writing directly from the ancient Semitic syllabic writing. Paleographic investigations by I.Kyzlasov detected eight separate subdivisions of the Türkic script, which implies a long period of development prior to the Late Antique/Early Middle Ages time examined by I.Kyzlasov. Modern research investigates a possibility that the Germanic runic writing had a precursor in the Scythian-Sarmatian script.
- Abaev, V.I. "Ossetian Language and Folklore", USSR Academy of Sciences, Moscow-Leningrad, 1949 (description of Ossetian language and foundation for Scytho-Iranian theory)
- Amanjolov A. "Genesis Of Türkic Runic Alphabet", Almaty, "Mektep", 2003
- Elnitskiy L.A. "Scythia of the Eurasian steppes", Historical Archeological Notes, Novosibirsk, 1977.
- Fattakhov F. "Zelenchuk epitaph", Language of casual and poetic stiles of Tatar literature monuments. Kazan, 1990.
- Gasanov Zaur "Royal Scythians", Liberty Publishing House, NY, 2002
- Petrov V.P. "Scythians", Kyiv, 1968
- Kafoev A.J. "Adygian monuments" Nalchik, 1963 ("without 8 additional letters the reading of Zelenchuk inscription by Vs.F.Miller would not find any Ossetian words whatsoever").
- Kyzlasov I.L. "Writings Of Eurasian Steppes", Moscow, "Eastern Literature", 1994
- G. Moravcsik, Byzantinoturcica, vols. I and II, Budapest, 1942—1943
- (Voevoda M.I. et al. "Reconstruction of genofond peculiarities of ancient Pazyryk population (I-II millenium BC) from Mountain Altai according to mtDNA structure"
- Zakiev M. "Problems Of The History And Language. Who Are the Alans? Ethnic Roots Of The Tatar People" Kazan, 1995