Eurasia, Nomads, and the “Other”

Today’s New York Times includes an article by John Noble Wilford on recent archaeological discoveries related to Scythian and Saka mortuary remains from Central Asia.  The article is occasioned by a new exhibit at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World that draws on collections from several museums in Kazakhstan to examine nomadic communities from the 1st millennium B.C. Altai region.  The exhibit runs from March 7-June 3 and is clearly a unique opportunity to see artifacts that are rarely exhibited in the U.S.

I’m looking forward to seeing the exhibit, but in the meantime Wilford’s article is itself of interest as it highlights the persistent tropes of otherness that have long marginalized examinations of ancient Eurasian societies within Western archaeology.  At the same time, the article appears to reinstate, unintentionally, many of those same tropes.  Here are two issues that seemed of particular note:

1. The other. Wilford points out how Eurasian pastoralists like the Scythians were portrayed as “the other” by contemporary classical Greeks.  Certainly true, but the Greeks “othered” lots of communities, including the Persians, the Egyptians, etc.  Basically, anyone not Greek, in the same way most cultural communities define inclusion (us) through exclusion (them).  Moreover, from the perspective of the Scythians, the Greeks were just another ‘other’ population on the margins of their world.  There is little evidence that the approval or disapproval of the Greeks was relevant to Eurasian societies.  But it is relevant to us moderns, and hence the surprised headline that exclaims “Eurasian nomads were sophisticated!”  That kind of recuperative “the other is sophisticated too” is simply another kind of othering device–an extension of the value of sophistication but not a collapsing of the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

2. Evolution. Wilford is correct that Eurasian nomads have been dismissed as a kind of arrested stage in cultural evolution.  But that is not a conceit of the Greeks.  It is a product of 19th and 20th century evolutionary anthropology.  Indeed, it remains deeply embedded in Wilford’s own world view. His article ends on this note:

“By these enigmatic symbols, a prewriting culture communicated its worldview from a vast and ungenerous land that it could never fully tame — any more than these people of the horse were ever ready to settle down.

The trope of the untamed is itself one dear to the evolutionary narrative of civilization in which the barbarian defiantly refuses to succumb to the bright light of urbanity.  Writing and settlement are both heavily marked categories central to the very category of “the civilized”.  Hence to describe Eurasian nomads as “pre”writing and not yet “ready to settle down”, is to reiterate the very same reasons why nomads in Eurasia have been othered by settled communities since the Greeks.

This is not to criticize Wilford’s account, merely to note its own entrapment in the tropes of us and other.  Even though he is rightly critical of such narrow renderings of the past, he is also “not yet ready” to leave them entirely behind.

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