The Amazons of Greek myth may have been real steppe warriors — who did not live without men:
Around a quarter of the ancient female bodies unearthed from the steppes are equipped as warriors.
Advances in osteological analysis (the study of bones) have allowed old evidence to be reconsidered and suggests that the numbers may have been even higher. For instance, two fourth-century B.C. burial mounds discovered in Romania (1931) and Bulgaria (1965), containing skeletons of both humans and horses as well as magnificent weapons and treasure, were originally assumed to be the resting places of ancient male warriors with their wives. It turns out that all the bodies in these graves are female.
One might well wonder why the peoples of the steppes should have been so much more open to having women play an active part in society than ancient Greece or Rome. Ms. Mayor has a simple but appealing answer: It was all about horses and arrows. In Greek and Roman warfare, women were at an obvious disadvantage, since they are (on average) smaller and less capable of marching into battle on foot clad in heavy armor and carrying a heavy shield, spear and sword. Women also have a physical disadvantage in societies based on agriculture. But they can be the equals of men in riding and controlling horses and in shooting arrows (including the nomad’s specialty, the Parthian shot, in which the rider fires arrows back over her shoulder while galloping away from the enemy).
Moreover, life in the barren landscapes of the steppes was difficult; these societies could not afford the waste of having half the population (or at least half the elite population) take little part in the gathering of food. Amazons are depicted as hunters in ancient Greek vase paintings, and the archaeological evidence seems to confirm that women as well as men rode on horses, with hunting dogs and trained birds to catch game for the tribe.
Ms. Mayor gives a fascinatingly detailed account of the physical conditions of these peoples’ lives. They dressed in clothes that would be practical for the cold weather and for long hours of riding: The people of these cultures, both women and men, may have been the first in the world to wear pants — a practice that the Greeks found both shocking and effeminate. They tattooed themselves with elaborate designs: Archaeologists have found the remains of mummified bodies in which inked patterns depicting animals such as deer, horses, leopards and tigers can be precisely reconstructed under infrared light. They may have been at least semi-literate; they made use of runes and “tamgas,” symbols used to mark an individual’s property. They ate food they could hunt or gather, and they drank the milk of their mares, fermented into a slightly alcoholic drink called koumiss, which can be stored unrefrigerated for longer than regular milk. Koumiss is still made by modern people in this region. They smoked cannabis: Herodotus writes of the Scythians burning this (to him entirely alien) “fruit” over a brazier, inhaling the smoke, and jumping up to dance and sing around the fire. Archaeologists have discovered little burners for smoking buried along with other daily possessions.
That’s from a review of Adrienne Mayor’s The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World.