Pazyryk People of the Past and the Homeless of Today

In modern day society, the homeless are too often looked down upon as the lowest class.  We treat a settled down lifestyle as the ultimate goal — the American dream of a house with a white picket fence.  But as urban nomads, the homeless are not inherently down on their luck.  In fact, the nomadic lifestyle has a long and complex historical significance – like, for instance the Pazyryk people.

The construction of a Pazyryk kurgan.

The Pazyryk people were nomadic horsemen who inhabited the Altai mountain region from the 6th century B.C. to the 4th century B.C. (  The Pazyryk people combat the idea the nomadic peoples are, “less developed than many sedentary ones”  (, or that nomadic people of their region were simply “rude barbarians” (  In Pazyryk burial mounds known as kurgans, artifacts like carved pieces of wood, goods formed from precious metals, and mechanically-complex carts have been found.  Foreign goods have also been found, but they have been transformed by the Pazyryk people’s craft — becoming even more fantastic.

Princess designs

An artist’s rendition of the tattoos covering the mummy known as Princess Ukok.

Even more interesting than the artifacts found inside of kurgans are the mummies buried with them.  Upon their bodies were intricate tattoos of animals both real and mythical.  It is believed that these tattoos symbolized place in society, names, or even pre-writing ( “The Stunning Ancient Tattoos of the Pazyryk Nomads”).  This has been supported by the discovery of the mummy Princess Ukok, a young female who was found in an elaborate burial chamber.

The Pazyryk people have even been found to have performed complex surgery.  Two individuals were found to have undergone cranial surgery, and survived — evidenced by bone growth over the incisions ( “Ancient Pazyryk nomads carried out highly advanced cranial surgery in Siberia”).  Interestingly, there is evidence that the surgeries performed are in line with ancient Greek medical texts suggesting the Pazyryk had an extensive range and communication with other cultures of their time period ( “Ancient Pazyryk nomads carried out highly advanced cranial surgery in Siberia”).

The urban nomads of today are not unlike the Pazyryk.  Though some are not homeless  by choice, many do make the choice to be “home-free”.  Those of us with sedentary lives should not look down upon urban nomads.  We should work to coexist and stop trying to fix their way of living through assimilation into our lifestyle.  Nomadic people have an equally rich culture and history — especially if wealth is not measured in terms of material items.



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4 thoughts on “Pazyryk People of the Past and the Homeless of Today

  1. Our Western perceptions of the world involuntarily places us in a position to judge and compare other groups of people and their way of life to our standards. As you mentioned, we cannot look down on another culture for its practices and beliefs simply because we do not understand it. One way we can do this is by listening to the voices of the people that are marginalized. Whether it is done through excavation and field work, archaeologists should use artifacts such as the kurgans to speak the truth of a culture rather than assert our interpretations of it. It can also be done through preservation of ancestral remains and sites that held deep cultural significance.

  2. Archaeology’s continued work of challenging our (particularly Western) notions of normality is absolutely imperative to building a more accepting world—stories of the Pazyryk people, modern urban nomads, undocumented migrants, and “home-free” inhabitants of Vegas’ flood tunnels defy the prevailing assumption that a sedentary life is one’s ultimate goal. While this revelation holds validity and importance, my fear is that the narratives of people forced onto the streets out of poverty or against their will could become romanticized and invalidated. Therefore, archaeology’s ability to expose truths about society, poverty, and Western biases should be used to give power to all voices involved, whether these stories are easy to hear or not.

  3. With archaeology we can look back on past cultures and use them to deconstruct contemporary biases. A nomadic lifestyle is proven to be the most flexible, therefore the most resilient, or what popular culture recognizes as “sustainable.” Archaeologists can look into the record and reference cultures such as the Pazyryk people as the world continues to change. Through archaeology we can distance ourselves from colonial narratives, teach the next generations without the influence of historical biases, and learn how to interact with our environment by referring back to past cultures.

  4. I found it intriguing that the Pazyryk, while nomadic, also had complex burial rituals, and artistic works. I do have to admit that I was biased by my Western perception; I would not have considered that a nomadic lifestyle would allow for art, and I was even more surprised by the mention of advanced surgery. The one thing I did not find surprising was the idea that the Pazyryk likely had contact with many cultures; I would imagine that a nomadic group would have an advantage in their ability to gather knowledge from many different cultures throughout their travels, though I wonder how they communicated with peoples from so many different areas and dialects, if not languages. These artifacts can give us a new way of perceiving nomadic cultures in general, as Cierra said, and could alter our preconceptions of homelessness as taboo. I almost wonder if studies of such archaeology, and more recent archaeology and interaction with homeless nomads might give us insight into the possibility of reestablishing some degree of mobility in culture (given that such large sedentary societies as our are ultimately not sustainable).

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