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Issedones – Central Asian countries

The Byzantine scholiast John Tzetzes, who cites the Issedones generally “in Scythia” present day Central Asian Region, quotes some lines to the effect that the Issedones “exult in long flowing hair” and mentions the one-eyed men to the north. According to Herodotus, the Issedones practiced ritual cannibalism of their elderly males, followed by a ritual feast at which the deceased patriarch’s family ate his flesh, gilded his skull, and placed it in a position of honor much like a cult image.

The archeologists E. M. Murphy and J. P. Mallory of the Queen’s University of Belfast, have argued (Antiquity, 74 (2000):388-94) that Herodotus was mistaken in his interpretation of what he imagined to be cannibalism. Recently-excavated sites in southern Siberia, such as the large cemetery at Aymyrlyg in Tuva containing more than 1,000 burials of the Scythian period, have revealed accumulations of bones often arranged in anatomical order. This indicates burials of semi-decomposed corpses or defleshed skeletons, sometimes associated with leather bags or cloth sacks. Marks on some bones show cut-marks of a nature indicative of defleshing, but most appear to suggest disarticulation of adult skeletons. Murphy and Mallory suggest that, since the Issedones were nomads living with cattle herds, they moved up the mountains in summer, but they wanted their dead to be buried at their winter camp; defleshing and dismemberment of the people who died in summer would have been more hygienic than allowing the corpses to decompose naturally in the summer heat. Burial of the dismembered remains would have taken place in fall after returning to winter camp, but before the ground was frozen completely. Such procedures of defleshing and dismemberment may have been mistaken for evidence of cannibalism by foreign onlookers.

Murphy and Mallory do not exclude the possibility that the flesh removed from the bodies was consumed. Archeologically these activities remain invisible. But they point out that elsewhere, Herodotus names another tribe (Androphagi) as the only group to eat human flesh.

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