The Superhero Issue

The science of real-life “Wonder Women” is rewriting human history

"We know they're there, and we're finding them in graves."

A sketch of a Scythian warrior woman

In 1988, archaeologists unearthed a wooden sarcophagus at a grave in the Russian region Tuva.

The individual inside wore a red leather headdress and a fur coat closed with a bronze buckle. The body was flanked by a leather quiver filled with arrows — evidence enough for the archaeologists to suggest that this was a warrior’s grave. Specifically, they speculated this was a 13 year-old male Scythian warrior – a member of an ancient tribe of nomads whose range extended from the Black Sea to China between 2000 and 3000 years ago.

But a new genetic analysis published earlier this year revealed an “unexpected” truth. The body inside the sarcophagus was no teenage boy warrior. It was a woman.

Armed with new analytical tools, scientists like those behind the re-examination of the Scythian remains are prompting a major rethink of our archaeological record, and what truly makes a warrior.

The idea of female warriors has captured imaginations for millennia, but that is, in some ways, part of why they have been so overlooked in real archaeological studies.

One of the most famous depictions of female warriors is that of the Amazons, invented by Greek male historians like Herodotus. Today, the fantasy continues, with films like ‘Wonder Woman’ and TV shows like ‘The Boys’ centering on women fighters with super powers.

Weapon-laden graves like the one uncovered in 1988 are generally assumed to have belonged to men, explains Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar in Stanford’s Classics Department and the author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World.

“It really wasn’t until we had bioarchaeologists and the ability to apply DNA testing to those skeletons that we really knew there were female warriors in antiquity and that they were known to the Greeks,” Mayor tells Inverse.

Amazons may have been fantasy, but the Scythian warrior women were perhaps the reality these stories are based upon. Now, bioarchaeologists are using gene analyses and advanced scanning tools to undo the erasure of other warrior women from history as well.

These efforts don’t just correct the historical record — they have ripple effects outside of science, too.

A marble slab depicting an Amazon doing battle with the Greeks dated to 350 BCE.

British Museum/Wikimedia Commons

A paradigm shift – When she is not researching folklore and pre-scientific myths, Mayor runs a Facebook group called “Amazons, Ancient and Modern,” with some 6,000 members.

Members post a mix of female-focused content, like photos of Gal Gadot in her Wonder Woman regalia, profiles of women like the indigenous activist Nemonte Nenquimo, or stories on the latest archaeological finds that put women back in the historical narrative.

“This group is evidence of a paradigm shift happening now,” S. Ness Fisher, a member of the Facebook group, tells Inverse.

"New things are always coming to light regarding women fighters, but they have always been there, and just not acknowledged as such. This group celebrates strong women, both ancient and modern, and we revel in the paradigm shift.”

"This group is evidence of a paradigm shift happening now."

Each new find underscores the fact that women were always warriors, even if the history books (mostly written by men) said otherwise.

“For a very long time, modern scholars tended to just assume that Amazon's were just a fantasy exclusive to the Greeks, a sort of a Greek storytellers invention,” Mayor explains.

Feminist scholar Mary Beard, professor of classics at the University of Cambridge, has emphasized there is not enough evidence to support the idea that the Amazons were anything more than a story. They may even serve as a cautionary tale.

Artifacts depicting Achilles killing the Amazon queen Penthesilea were illustrative of the Greek idea that men should subdue unruly women, she argues in a 2017 talk hosted by the London Review of Books.

“An enormous amount of modern feminist energy has, I am afraid, been wasted” attempting to prove the Amazons existed, she said at the time.

The body in the sarcophagus that, as of June 2020, was confirmed to be female.

Marina Kilunovskaya

But as the technology of archaeology improves, scientists have more to go on than simply the word of Greek historians, or pictures on ancient pottery.

Weapons do not make the man — In 1997, an excavation of burial mounds near Pokrovka, Russia, uncovered remains of women buried with iron swords, daggers, and arrowheads. The skeleton of one 14 year-old girl was bowlegged, suggesting a life on horseback. She was buried with a bronze arrowhead secured in a pouch around her neck.

These women lived too far from the mythical Amazon lands to be deemed ‘Amazons,’ say the archaeologists who discovered the remains. But they do trouble the idea that weaponry denotes masculinity in societies throughout the ancient world.

As Elizabeth J.W. Barber, an archaeologist at Occidental College told The New York Times at the time: “Most people assumed that if a grave had weapons, the skeleton was a man — now they can't be so sure.”

Graves containing female skeletons replete with weaponry continue to be uncovered. In 2019, the Don Archaeological Expedition, a project led by scientists at the Russian Academy of Sciences, uncovered four female skeletons. The youngest was around 12 or 13 years old when she died, while the eldest was in her forties.

The graves date back to about the 4th century BCE — within the same period as the Scythian nomads. The graves contained a horse harness, a ceremonial headdress, and weaponry, including 30 iron arrowheads, knives, and an ornamental hook shaped like a bird.

The remains of the eldest Scythian warrior woman found during the expedition, complete with her headdress.

Don Expedition

The 2020 re-analysis of the woman in the Russian sarcophagus adds to the developing picture of a society in which women were celebrated as warriors and involved in military action.

But even genetic evidence can be open to different interpretations. The presence of two X chromosomes in remains found at a gravesite isn’t enough to convince everyone.

A sensational 2017 paper is a case in point. In 1878, scientists discovered the grave of a Viking who appeared to have been buried with high honors. The seemingly male individual was interred with gear that likely would have belonged to a mounted archer. The individual was also buried with a complete set of iron gaming pieces, suggestive of a command position.

In 2017, a team of scientists in Sweden performed genetic analysis on the remains. They found evidence to suggest the remains actually belonged to a woman.

The paper made headlines, but it also drew criticism from scientists who argued the chain of evidence at the grave was too messy to make such interpretations. Writing in a blog post, University of Nottingham professor of Viking Studies Judith Jesch explained the bones used by the scientists in the 2017 study didn’t match the arrangements depicted in original 19th century drawings of the site. That could mean the bones were mixed together over the years, or perhaps, this woman wasn’t the grave’s true occupant.

“All this seems to me to move rather quickly from evidence to speculation which is presented as fact,” Jesch wrote.

An artists' rendering of the female viking unearthed discovered in the 19th century. Genetic analysis has since confirmed that the grave's occupant was female.

In 2019, the team that identified the female Viking responded. They acknowledged that simply being buried with something doesn’t tell us that much about a person’s life. But they stood by their assertion that the remains did, indeed, belong to a female warrior.

“We have not ‘gone looking for female warriors’…” they wrote at the time. “In the course of our research, and even more so after the 2017 publication – it has been enlightening to discover how many people apparently need that to not be so.”

As for the Amazons, there is increasing evidence to suggest they existed and lived as warriors. It’s more than circumstantial, Mayor says.

“We have more than 1,000 excavations of Scythian graves now,” she says. “And at least 300 of them have been shown by DNA studies to be those of warrior women, women buried with their weapons, and their horses, and some of them actually have battle scars.”

If the 2017 incident reveals anything, it is that doubt can persist when dealing with events that happened thousands of years ago – and perhaps, in particular when those events involve female warriors.

Beard, for example, is not convinced. In March 2019 she tweeted that she stood by her skepticism on the Amazons. (Beard did not immediately respond to Inverse’s request for comment for this story)

“There will always be those who disagree with my hard line on the Amazons here. But have seen no good reason to change my mind,” she said.

The remains of two female warriors unearthed as part of the Don Expedition.

Don Expedition

A modern Amazon – The Ancient Greeks portrayed the Amazons as strange creatures. In the 4th century BCE, Greek historian Herodotus reported that Amazons were forbidden to marry until they had killed a man in battle. And Strabo, a Greek geographer who lived between 64 BCE and 20 CE, is author of the myth that Amazons cut off a breast to improve their archery skills (also false).

The idea that female warriors are unusual or exceptional has persisted. Wonder Woman, after all, was sculpted from clay. But the more warriors archaeologists find, the more it becomes clear that female fighters weren’t anomalies.

This message resonates with members of “Amazons Ancient and Modern,” and especially with Patricia Gonsalves.

Gonsalves is a professional archer and founder of Lykopis Archery, a school for archers. Gonsalves has practiced the sport for over 30 years, and has traveled across Asia visiting the sites where archeologists have unearthed ancient archery-related artifacts. She’s yet to visit the grave of an ancient female warrior.

“We’re opening up to the idea that there are female warriors, and I like to think that this is just a normal occurrence,” Gonsalves tells Inverse.

“We know they're there, and we're finding them in graves,” she adds.

Gonsalves’ skills put her in a unique position. She consults for The CW, and she has trained all the network’s archers, from Arrow’s Artemis to Riverdale’s Cheryl Blossom. With every show, she’s building a fictional rolodex of female characters to bring to life to the true female warriors archaeologists keep turning up.

“When you think back to your history class what strong female character did you look at?” Gonsalves points out. “That’s translated into my coaching. When I teach young women in shows like Arrow, I bring up these characters. I talk to these young women and say ‘you’re going to own this.’”

A complicated Amazon – The idea of continuity between modern and ancient warrior women is undoubtedly powerful. But bringing Amazons from the realm of myth into reality isn’t as easy as seems.

Saum Arya Haas is living through that transition. She’s also a member of “Amazons Ancient and Modern.”

“As a young girl growing up in India, I frequently defended myself from being groped by men in crowded public spaces,” Haas tells Inverse. Fighting back alienated her from those around her. She felt isolated and says people viewed her as “unstable.”

“What about women conquerors?"

“I turned to stories of other women fighters throughout history,” Haas continues. “The Amazons, Rani of Jhansi, Boudicca…these figures helped me see myself as part of a lineage of fierce women who were lauded for their physical bravery.”

“These stories made me feel less alone and gave me comfort,” she adds.

Haas is a master’s student at Harvard’s Divinity School, where she studies women, gender, sexuality, and religion, with a specific focus on pre-modern warrior women. When the Amazons were mere fictions, they could be perfect paragons of morality, she points out. Superheroes like Wonder Woman or Supergirl, they only killed as a last resort.

But if the record is set straight and women are counted among history’s warriors, we have to grapple with the fact that they killed others, just like male warriors, Haas points out. We have to learn to accept they were not perfect.

“What about women conquerors? Women who were violent oppressors? Women who were soldiers or mercenaries?” she asks.

In reality, Scythian warrior women like those found in Russia likely did not kill for noble reasons alone. And as much as Haas loved the stories of Amazons as a girl, as an adult she is preoccupied with the idea of Amazons as inherently complicated figures.

“To portray women warriors as always noble and sympathetic means stripping them of their essential and complex humanity,” she says.

Ultimately that’s what people go to “Amazons Ancient and Modern” in search of. A connection with a female warrior who is more than a mythic heroine, but a real — and troubling — individual.

Editor's Note: Achilles did not marry the Amazon Queen Penthesilea, as a previous version of this article stated. Rather, he kills her, then falls in love with her.

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