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The Scythians (/?s?θi.?n/ or /?s?ði.?n/; from Greek Σκ?θης, Σκ?θοι), also known as Scyth, Saka, Sakae, Sacae, Sai, Iskuzai, or Askuzai, were a large group of Iranian Eurasian nomads who were mentioned by nearby literate peoples as inhabiting large areas in the central Eurasian steppes from about the 9th century BC until about the 1st century BC. The Scythian languages belonged to the Eastern branch of the Iranian languages.
Ancient Greek historians spoke of Scythians who lived north of the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. Persians used the term Saka (Old Persian: Sak?; New Persian: ????; Greek: Σ?και; Armenian: ??????????; Latin: Sacae, Sanskrit: ?? ?aka), for approximately the same people who lived further east. Although the ancients did not clearly distinguish the two terms, modern scholars usually use "Saka" to refer to Iranian-speaking tribes who inhabited the central steppe and the Tarim Basin. The Chinese used the term Sai (Chinese: ?; Old Chinese: *s??k), for Sakas who had moved into the Tarim Basin. Assyrian sources speak of Iskuzai or Askuzai south of the Caucasus who were probably Scythians.
The relationships between the peoples living in these widely separated regions remains unclear. The term "Scythian" is used by modern scholars in an archaeological context for finds perceived to display attributes of the "Scytho-Siberian" culture, usually without implying an ethnic or linguistic connotation. The term Scythic may also be used in a similar way, "to describe a special phase that followed the widespread diffusion of mounted nomadism, characterized by the presence of special weapons, horse gear, and animal art in the form of metal plaques". Their westernmost territories during the Iron Age were known to classical Greek sources as Scythia.
The Scythians were among the earliest peoples to master mounted warfare. In the 8th century BC they possibly raided Zhou China. Soon after they expanded westwards and dislodged the Cimmerians from power on the Pontic Steppe. At their peak, Scythians came to dominate the entire steppe zone, stretching from the Carpathian Mountains in the west to central China (Ordos culture) and the south Siberia (Tagar culture) in the east, creating what has been referred to as the first Central Asian nomadic empire.
Based in what is modern-day Ukraine, Southern European Russia, and Crimea, the western Scythians were ruled by a wealthy class known as the Royal Scyths. The Scythians established and controlled a vast trade network connecting Greece, Persia, India and China, perhaps contributing to the contemporary flourishing of those civilizations. Settled metalworkers made portable decorative objects for the Scythians. These objects survive mainly in metal, forming a distinctive Scythian art. In the 7th century BC the Scythians crossed the Caucasus and frequently raided the Middle East along with the Cimmerians, playing an important role in the political developments of the region. Around 650–630 BC, Scythians briefly dominated the Medes of the western Iranian Plateau, stretching their power all the way to the borders of Egypt. After losing control over Media the Scythians continued intervening in Middle Eastern affairs, playing a leading role in the destruction of the Assyrian Empire in the Sack of Nineveh in 612 BC. The Scythians subsequently engaged in frequent conflicts with the Achaemenid Empire. The western Scythians suffered a major defeat against Macedonia in the 4th century BC, and were subsequently gradually conquered by the Sarmatians, a related Iranian people from Central Asia. The Eastern Scythians of the Asian Steppe (Saka) were attacked by the Yuezhi, Wusun and Xiongnu in the 2nd century BC, prompting many of them to migrate into South Asia, where they became known as Indo-Scythians. At some point, perhaps as late as the 3rd century AD after the demise of the Han dynasty and the Xiongnu, Eastern Scythians crossed the Pamir Mountains and settled in the western Tarim Basin, where the Scythian Khotanese and Tumshuqese languages are attested in Brahmi scripture from the 10th and 11th centuries AD. In Eastern Europe, by the early Medieval Ages, the Scythians and their closely related Sarmatians were eventually assimilated and absorbed (e.g. Slavicisation) by the Proto-Slavic population of the region.
- Civilizations BC