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Valentyn Stetsyuk (Lviv, Ukraine)

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The Sarmatians

Left: Sarmatian Cataphract from Tanais: Marble block with the image of a horseman (2nd century A.D.)
Marble 40х35 cm, from the ancient city of Tanais on the Don River. The horseman is garbed as a Sarmatian or Alan warrior: long scale armor held on by a broad belt, a fluttering cloak with fibula brooch, trousers tucked into soft boots and a rounded conical helmet. His main weapon is a lance kontos. According to the Greek inscription, the image depicts a historical person, Triphon, a deputy [?] of the ruler of the Bosporus in the ancient city of Tanais. Compare Pausanias' description of armor (text below). Photo from "Sarmatians"

Right: A carved wood item of unknown origin.
The figure bears a striking resemblance to the Marble sculpture of Triphon of Tanais. The wood appears very old and there is some faint paint still left in some areas. The horse’s mounted rider has scale armor: on his upper body and on his legs what looks like plate armor. He has a skull helmet that is very similar to Triphon and a long flowing cape or scarf behind him. More detailed pictures on Sarmatian Enigmatic Figure.
If this turns out to be an antiquity, then the owner would want to make sure it gets returned to the proper country. If somebody could uncover the history behind it please address to the owner (e-mail:

To the Sarmatians

According to archeology, the Sarmatians appeared on the territory of Ukraine at the end of the IV century BC. and their earliest sites are dated back to the II-III century. BC.:

These are separate small-sized mounds in which burials of ordinary nomads were located. Burials were also made in the mounds of more ancient kurgans. Rich burials, related mainly to a later time, are single (BARAN V.D. 1985: 5).

The main burial sites of the Sarmatians at the beginning of the 1st millennium AD.

81 – Starobelʹsk, 82 – Balakleya, Yaremivka, 84 – Slav'yansk, 85 – Bohodar, 86 – Akkermenʹ, Novopylypivka, 87 – Anchekrak, 88 – Mykhaylivka, 89 – Vorona, 90 – Ushkivka, 91 – Ustʹ-Kam'yanka, Kut, Hrushivka, 92 – Kantemyrivaka, 93 – Kolontayiv, 94 – Tsvitkove, 95 – Ruzhychanka, 96 – Rayhorod, 97 – Yemchykha, 98 – Maslivka, 99 – Kaharlyk, 100 – Koshary, 101 – Troyany, 102 – Kyseliv (ibid, 6).

Archaeologists, describing the sites of Great Scythia, do not distinguish among them a special Sarmatian culture, as they do not find a sufficient number of common signs for this. In fact, the only one feature may be a corpse on the back with elongated limbs and a north-oriented head. Local features of the sites often reflect tribal diversity and ties to the ancient world.(ibid, 7-8).

It has long been believed that the words Sauromatians and Sarmatians have the same concept (SULIMIRSKIY T. 2008, POLIN S.V., SIMONENKO A.V. 2004, 368). However, we have to bear in mind that Herodotus wrote about the Sauromatians as a single ethnic group, in fact, that they comprised tribes of different ethnic origin. Pliny noted that Sauromatians is the Greek form of the name but wrote nothing about their unity:

From this point (from the Danube mouth – V.S.) all the races, in general, are Scythian, though various sections have occupied the lands adjacent to the coast, in one place the Getae (called by the Romans Dacians), at another the Sarmatae (called by the Greeks Sauromatae), and the section of them called Waggon-dwellers or the Aorsi, at another the base-born Scythians, descended from slaves, or else the Cave-dwellers, and then the Alani and Rhoxolani. The higher parts between the Danube and the Hercynian Forest as far as the winter quarters of Pannonia at Carnuntum and the plains and level country of the German frontiers – there are occupied by the Sarmatian Iazyges, while the Dacians whom they have driven out hold the mountains and forests as far as the river Theiss (PLINY, 1961, 80).

The difference between the Sarmatians and Sauromatians was seen by M.I. Rostovtsev who considered the Sauromatians and the Sarmatians absolutely different ethnoi and adduced weighty evidence to that, such as, signs of matriarchy at the Sauromatians; and complete absence of it at the Sarmatians (HARMATTA J. 1970, 9). In due time, Rostovtsev's conclusions were contested by other scholars with bringing evidence from ancient authors.

It is believed that the word "Sarmatia" was first used by Heraclides Ponticus (380 -310 BC), about a hundred years after the appearance of Herodotus' works. Heraclides’ work had not been preserved, there are only the later references to it, where sometimes the definition "the land Savromatians" have been used instead of the word "Sarmatia" (SIMONENKO O.V. 1994: 32). The information of ancient historians is confusing enough, therefore, it is often not clear whom the question is about – about the Scythians or Sauromatians, or about the new people of Sarmatians. The term "Sarmatians" was used instead of the "Scythians", and over time began to be used by various authors commonly referring to the entire population of the steppe region from the Volga till the Carpathians. Also, please note, there is no exact data about the time of appearance of the Sarmatians west of the Don River (ibid: 32).

Sarmatians on Trajan's Column

Despite the confusing details provided by ancient historians, they are in most cases the base while restoring ethnogenetic processes of Scythian-Sarmatian time. However, the unsuccessful attempts to connect ancient myths with the results of archaeological research led to the need to re-evaluation their significance and, consequently, proposed to give up "the using of the ancient written sources for proving research archaeological constructions" and this step will "save the scythology and sarmatology from methodical self-destruction" (YABLONSKIY L.T. 2016 62).

This is not enough. While the scythology and sarmatology do not abandon myths concerning the exclusivity of the Iranian ethnicity of the Scythians and Sarmatians, self-destruction will continue. The first step to progress in the sarmatology will be recognition of the Bulgarian ethnicity of the Scythians, that helps to give certain logic for archaeological constructions.

The decline and even ruin of the Scythian steppe culture, of which sites are not known from the beginning of 3rd century B.C., is associated with the invasion of the Sarmatians. But in fact, there was a change of culture during the transition of the Scythians-Bulgars from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle. This is said by a lot of place names in the band the Black Sea steppe, a bit remote from the sea, decrypted through the means of the Chuvash language. The settlements based during the Scythian time, continue to exist to this day, that is, they have always settled in and this part of the steppes was never devastated. Full desolation of the steppes, associated with the repeated incursions of nomads, took place only in a narrow strip of seacoast (see the map). The arising of a new culture, which replaced the Scythian after one hundred years later, has to be connected with the coming of the steppe nomads (other than that of Bulgarish ethnicity), generally called the Sarmatians.

Strabo singled out among the Sarmatians the individual tribes of the Iazyges, Alans, Roxolani, Aorsi, Ugrs, etc. More recent authors cite a significantly larger number of tribes in Sarmatia, and it is just impossible to identify them by their confusing evidence. Similarly, it is impossible to locate the place of settlements of individual Sarmatian tribes according to archaeological data (although from sources we know that Roxolani, for example, dwelled on the coast of the Sea of Azov) (BARAN V.D. 1985, 8). Without reliable evidence of the identity of the Sauromats and Sarmatians, the restoration of the history of the Sarmatians, using facts relating to the Sauromates, will immediately look incorrect, but in the absence of kinship between them, it will simply be erroneous. So as not to be trapped, you must first find out whether it is one group of people or two different. Taking all this into account, we can assume in advance that the ethnic composition of the Sarmatians could be very colorful, and among them could be the descendants of Herodotus’ Sauromatians too but under a different name. To find out more, we can study at least some of the specific ethnicity of some Sarmatian tribes from preserved epigraphy which was collected and researched by many experts at the Northern Black Sea coast. We can add to formerly mentioned V. Latyshev the names of L. Zgusta, V. Miller, M. Vasmer, H. Lommel, and others. For a long time, Janos Harmatta was engaged in this issue [HARMATTA J. 1952, HARMATTA, 1970). It goes without saying that they believed a priori that all the Scythian and Sarmatian names must have Iranian origin. They took exclusively Iranian languages for their explanation and did not apply other languages, even when it was obvious that a Turkic or Greek origin existed. This was their big mistake.

Sword head from the Sarmatian burial ground Hradeshka, left bank of the Lower Danube
(gold, bronze, rock crystal, tourmaline, lapis lazuli).
Photo from [BRUYAKO I.V., SAMOYLOVA T.L. (Ed.) 2013: Table. 22-1].

The descendants of the Sarmatians have been confidently attributed by some experts to the Alans, which in turn were the ancestors of the Ossetians. The connection the Alan with the Ossetians is supported by relatively recent historical evidence (mainly the existence of the state Alania in the North Caucasus) and by the national consciousness of the Ossetians.

In the recognition of the language kinship of the Alans and Ossetians, many scholars have a wide variety of views as to the Sarmatian language and the ethnicity of its speakers. Some believe that their language was homogeneous, while others recognize the presence of separate dialects. However, the vast majority of scientists believe in any case, that the population in the Northern Black Sea Region at the Sarmatian time belonged to the Iranian language group. Accordingly, some consider the Ossetians as descendants of some Iranian-speaking people, while others think they are one of several possible successors. Hungarian linguist J. Harmatta gives a detailed analysis of the views of various scholars (HARMATTA, 1970: 59-65) and expressed his own point of view that the Iranian tribes of the Northern Black Sea spoke different dialects of Iranian at least in the first centuries A.D. He argues that "Ossetian only represents the outcome of a single Alanic dialect group, the historical development of which was different from that of Sarmatian dialects attested by the Iranian names occurring in the inscription of the Northern Pontic Greek cities" (Ibid: 96-97).

In particular, V. Abayev, developing on Lommel's idea of the existence of an Iranian language group, i.e., a special "Scythian" language (which supposedly was split into the Ossetic, Sogdian, Alan, and other languages), compiled "the Scythian vocabulary" (ABAYEV V.I. 1979). His goal was to restore the said "Scythian" language, therefore he added to the Black Sea epigraphy the names and words that have, in his opinion, something to do with the Scythians. The conducted studies allow us to state that neither Scythian nor Sarmatian languages, as a uniform for the entire population of the Northern Black Sea region, ever existed, and our task is not the restoration of non-existent languages, but only the determination of the ethnic composition of the population of the Northern Black Sea region, collectively called the Sarmatians. The solution to this problem can be helped by analysis of epigraphic material available in the works of Abayev, Petrov, Harmatta, Alemany (ALEMANY AGUSTI. 2000), Justi (A. JUSTI FERDINAND. 1895), who mainly used the data of Academician V.V. Latyshev (1855-1921). All the collected material was broken up as far as possible into two massifs related to the Scythian and Sarmatian times, composed Scythian and Sarmatian onomasticons. When composing them, it was found that most researchers include in their collections mostly words that can be deciphered by means of the Ossetian, Old Iranian languages, and Avesta language, being sure the development of the Ossetian from Scythian and Sarmatian. In addition, they included the names of kings of Abkhazia, Iberia, Colchis of Ossetian origin, and other names that have nothing to do with the Sarmatians. For this reason, such samples are not representative, therefore they give a preconceived notion about the ethnic composition of the entire Sarmatian community. Having best options, we will not take into account the lexicon of the Avesta, which is often taken by Abaev and other specialists as an argument in favor of the existence of such a word in Ossetian as well. The formation of primary Iranian languages (dialects) occurred long before the Scythian times and the writing of the Avesta. Its language should be some unknown to us Iranian language, but not all-Iranian, as the experts obviously suggested. Therefore we will involve modern Iranian languages – Ossetian, Kurdish, Afghan, and others – that have preserved their ancient lexical fund to a large extent to explain the meaning of names. In addition to them, Turkic, Germanic, Baltic, Finno-Ugric languages and the languages of the peoples of the Caucasus will also be involved.

Sarmatian onomastics was compiled in the number of 315 names. The analysis showed that the interpretation of the names in it is possible with the use of a significantly larger number of languages than it was in the case of Scythian onomasticon. Some help in deciphering was given by the names of relatives. The reliability of decoding increased if the names of all relatives were deciphered using one language. However, convincing transcriptions of the names of some relatives by different languages can speak of a wide practice of borrowing popular names. As it turned out, 82 names (25%) of the compiled list can be deciphered with the help of several languages or well decoded by Greek or Latin. They were not included in the representative sample, which was used to count the number of decrypted names more or less reliably only by means of one language. It turned out that of the 233 names of the sample, 78 are deciphered with the help of different Iranian languages (27 of them are Ossetian and 16 Kurdish names), 70 – with the help of Old English, 38-Chuvash. In this case, the range of languages used for decoding can be extended further. Benjamin Nadel, using L. Zgusta's monograph "Own Names of Residents of Greek Towns on the Northern Black Sea Coast", gives some of them a Hurrian-Hittite explanation (NADEL’ BENJAMIN. 1978). Thus, we are convinced that the Sarmatians can not be identified with any individual ethnos, and hence it can be concluded that the Sauromats and Sarmatians are completely different categories. If you can talk about the first after Herodotus as a certain ethnos, then this can not be said for certain about the Sarmatians.

The obtained quantitative correlation of languages ​​with the help of which the names were deciphered in no way reflects the mosaic of the ethnic composition of the Sarmatians. On the one hand, there may be names on the list that do not have any relation to the Sarmatians, and on the other hand, the obtained ratios can to a certain extent speak only of the ethnic composition of the ruling elite, since some tribes in tribal unions occupied the leading position. Such names could be prestigious, fashionable, borrowed more often than others. It can be added that rich foreign merchants more could often than the local population be buried with expensive tombstones in the form of stone slabs and with carved names, and this also distorted the general picture of the ethnic composition of the population of the Northern Black Sea Region. The ethnic diversity of the population here was further intensified after the arrival of the Goths and the subsequent invasion of the Huns, which led to the Great Migration of Nations. All this we will bear in mind when considering the analysis.

The correlation between the deciphered names does not confirm the assumption of the Sauromaths, as the ancestors of modern Hungarians. Maybe, Sauromatians were few among the Sarmatians (from the names of the representative sample only 5 (2, 15%) can be explained with the help of the Hungarian language. If we talk about the quantitative correlation between other peoples in the Northern Black Sea Coast, we should admit that the presence of the Iranian element here has significantly increased in comparison with the Scythian period. Iranian-speaking must have been at least a third of all Sarmatians. It is difficult to judge the correlation of individual ethnic groups within the Iranian community since so many names can be deciphered with the help of several Iranian languages. The names are more or less clearly interpreted with the help of the Ossetian and Kurdish languages, to a lesser extent – with the help of the Afghan, but it should be taken into account that the ancestors of the Mazandarans, Baluchis, and Talyshis could also be present in the Black Sea region. Most of all among the Iranians (perhaps more than one-third) was supposed to be the ancestors of Ossetians (12% of all Sarmatians), Kurds – half as many.

Apparently, the relative amount of the Bulgar population in the Black Sea area has decreased noticeably. Judging by the deciphered names, the Bulgars among the Sarmatians numbered approximately 16%. In addition, the presence of another Turkic ethnos is noticeable, since 11 names (4.8%) can be deciphered by Turkic languages. Perhaps, these were tribes of the Kipchak-Kumans, the ancestors of modern Karachais, Balkarians, and Kumyks. However, judging by Jordan's remark that "the settlements of the Bulgars stretch over the Pontic Sea," we can assume that they constituted a significant part of the population of the Black Sea area, and the relatively small representation of the Bulgarian names in the onomastics can testify that the Bulgars, being the already settled people, were subordinate to more militant nomadic tribes. This is evidenced by the expression "Epir Asem" (we are the Asses), common among the elderly Chuvashes (YEGOROV GENNADIY. 1993: 28). Obviously, the Bulgars were part of a tribal alliance, headed by the Asses (Yazygs).

Significant ethnic unity among the Sarmatians was represented by Anglo-Saxons because near 30% of names can be explained by means of Old English what is agreed upon the presence of the Anglo-Saxons on Ukraine at prehistoric time. Among the rest of the population, a rather large proportion was presented by the ancestors of modern Chechens (16 names, or 7%) and speakers of the Adyghe languages (8 names, or 3.5%). There is also reason to talk about the presence of speakers of the Baltic languages (4 names in the list).

When considering the ethnic composition of the Northern Black Sea Region, we should take into account the fact that the intensification of trade and personal contacts between the leadership of the various ethnic groups of the Pontic Region, the Balkans, the Caucasus (secured by the supremacy of the Sarmatians and the Bosporus state), led not only to a certain confusion of the population in large cities but also to the borrowing of proper names. For example, the children of the Byzantine commander Ardabur Aspar (Ardabur Jr., Patritsius, and Hermanarich) had clearly the names of different origins. Jordanes evidence of direct borrowing names:

…let no one who is ignorant cavil at the fact that the tribes of men make use of many names, even as the Romans borrow from the Macedonians, the Greeks from the Romans, the Sarmatians from the Germans, and the Goths frequently from the Huns (JORDANES: 58-59)

Ethnic diversity of the population of the Northern Black Sea region is confirmed by analyzing the place names on the territory of "Great Scythia". The space on the Volga up to the Pannonian Plain and from the Pripyat River to the shores of the Black and Azov Seas – the majority of "dark" place names on this space (which were decoded by means of several languages), have been mapped on a Google map served below.

Ethnic map of Great Scythia from the middle of the I st. BC. until the middle of the I century. AD according to toponymy

On the map, the toponyms of Bulgarish origin are marked with a burgundy color, the azure names are of Anglo-Saxon, red – Kurdish, purple – Mordovian, green – Ossetian, dark green – Chechen, orange – Hungarian, black – Greek. The red line marks the border of Scythia of Herodotus.
The violet rhomb denotes the hillfort of Belsky near the village of Kuzemin, which some scientists associate with the ancient city of Gelon.
The red rhomb denotes a Scythian fortification near the village of Chotyniec in Poland.
More toponymic studies are discussed in section "Prehistoric Place Names of the Central-Eastern Europe.".

The map shows that the Bulgarian place names prevail in the steppe zone, the forest-steppe of Right-bank Ukraine, in the Carpathians. The ancestors of modern Kurds, one of the branches of the Cimmerians, originally lived compactly in Podillia. We associate them with the Alazones of Herodotus. A chain of Kurdish toponyms marks the movement of Kurds towards Jutland, where they became known in history as Cimbri. However, the largest number of toponyms in Sarmatia is of Anglo-Saxon origin. The Anglo-Saxons, that is, supposed Neuroi and Melanchlainoi, occupied a vast territory on both sides of the Dnieper. Some of them moved to Central Europe and two chains of place names mark this way. The other part chose the path to the steppes of modern Donbas. Traces of the movement survived in a chain of names, which stretches from the Kharkiv region towards the city of Debalcevo about the path of the present highway Kharkiv-Rostov. Onward, the chain stretches to the North Caucasus, but it cannot yet be said anything definite about the fate of the Anglo-Saxons in these places. Obviously, they mingled with the local population. On the contrary, as the toponymy shows, the Anglo-Saxons settled in the Donbas as a compact group on the territory between the cities of Horlivka and Kadievka. The choice of this place of settlement, and possibly the very movement to these places, was due to the presence here of large deposits of copper ore, which development was carried out since the Bronze Age. Kartamysh copper mine is just located in the center of the cluster of Anglo-Saxon toponyms that. This name, as well as the names of the neighboring settlements and railway stations Vergulivka, Borzhikovka, Bryanka, Mius, Golmovske, Gladosove, Irmino, Chutovo, can be decrypted using the Old English language. In the same area place names of Bulgarish origin are concentrated in the same density (see the section "The Ethnic Composition of the Population of Great Scythia According Toponymy.")

Copper mining and manufacturing all sorts of demand allowed the local population to reach economic superiority through trade, and then political domination throughout the Northern Black Sea. This is explained by the Anglo-Saxon origin of names for a number of Scythian kings (Spargapeithes, Likos, Gnurus, Saulius, Idanthyrsus), Sarmatian and Alan leaders, including Ariant, Ariapeit, several Ardaburs, Arifarns, Athey, Beorg, Goar, Respondial, Saitofarn, Sangiban, Tasy, and Eohar. Becoming the head of the tribal alliance, the Anglo-Saxons under the name Alan, ensured the peaceful development of the region up to the Hun invasion. How and why settled Anglo-Saxons unite nomadic tribes, still it is necessary to find out. Perhaps they themselves went on to a nomadic way of life because of the depletion of copper ore reserves in the Donbas or a decrease in soil fertility at a then low level of agricultural production. The latter reason can also refer to the Iranians. The toponymy indicates that other Iranian peoples were present in the Northern coasts of the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, except Ossetians and Kurds, but it is not yet possible to identify them. Occupying a dominant position, they treated subdued tribes with prejudice. This assumption is based on such interpretation of the ethnonym "Sarmatian" – OE. sār "sickness, suffering, grievous" and mæte "mean, poor", "inferior, bad". (The semantic proximity of the proposed decoding of words makes it quite plausible). This name was taken by the Greeks without understanding the meaning and refers to the entire population of the Northern Black Sea region – without exception. On the future of the Anglo-Saxons see the sections "The Alans" and Anglo-Saxons at Sources of Russian Power ".

The study of historical sources and early Sarmatian burials on the Pontic region gives reason to believe that the nomadic tribes of Sarmatian begin to develop this space not prior to the 2nd century B.C. The area of early Sarmatian sites is limited to the left bank of the Dnieper (see the map below). In the north, they reach the forest-steppe in the basin of the Sula, Psel, and Vorskla Rivers (SYMONENKO O.V. 1994: 34, 45)

At right: Early Sarmatian sites in the Northern Black Sea region
(I – the 1st cen. BC, II – the 2nd cen. BC.) The map copies the original (ibid: 35) without specifying the exact location of the sites.

It is clearly seen on the map that the spread of the Sarmatians went from the east from the Don basin, where there are synchronous sites of the same type (ibid: 35). Taking into account these place names, they must have been a group of the Iranians and the Anglo-Saxons.

The Budinoi are confidently identified by historians with the Mordvins, who left few traces in the toponymy, but the places of their settlements can be localized along the Sula and Psel Rivers. It is not far from the Belsky hillfort on the Vorskla River, which is identified with the ancient city of Gelon. According to Herodotus, this was inhabited by the Budinoi and the Gelonians (which became the origins of the Greeks). Immediately nearby, mostly near the city of Poltava, there are place names of possible Greek origin. They are found also scattered in the surrounding areas. However, the Greeks had not to be among Sarmatians. More on this, see the section Ancient Greeks in Ukraine. However, the Greeks had not to be among Sarmatians.

We hypothesized that Sauromatians were Magyars, i.e., the ancestors of the modern-day Hungarians. According to Herodotus, Sauromatians dwelled beyond the Don River, (for which obviously he meant the Seversky Donets River and the lower reaches of the Don). Hungarian place names are drawn from the Volga to the Derkul River, lt of the Siv. Donets. Apparently, the Derkul with Donets and Don River could be the eastern boundary of Scythia. Since names of Hungarian origin are present in the Sarmatian Onomastikon in a very small numbers, we can assume that the Hungarian remained in their old places for a long time.

On the contrary, the Ossetians, which we take Herodotus’ Irykai (mentioned in his Histories), according to the similarity of this name to the self-name of the Ossetians "Iron", and which populated in Herodotus’ time the upper Vorskla and Oskol Rivers, didn't stay on their place. Ar some time they moved into the steppe zone in two ways – along the course of the Vorskla and Kalitva Rivers. Place names of Ossetian origin kept not many in Northern Pontic till the present time. Among them are the name of the Sea of Azov and the city of Bataisk. Since, according to the Sarmatian Onomasticon, the Ossetians constituted a significant portion of the population of the Northern Black Sea region, it can be assumed that names of many of their settlements, as well as settlements of other ethnic groups, were lost during the "Great Migration" because they were in the path of nomads.

Populating the northern part of Black Sea region, the Ossetians had to have contact with the Bulgars, evidence of which can be derived from the lexical correspondences between the Ossetian and Chuvash language. The Ossetian language has quite a lot of borrowing from Turkic languages, but it is hard to identify among them the Bulgarian ones, because such words can be borrowed from either the Balkars or Kumyks living in close neighbourhood with the Ossetians for many centuries. Nevertheless, one can speak of such distinguished Chuvash-Ossetian lexical matches:

Chuv. kavrăç "ash-tree" – Osset. kärz "ash-tree",

Chuv. kĕtĕ "bush" – Osset. kutär "bush".

Chuv. kukăl' "pie" – Osset. gukku "patty".

A special case is Osset. guton/goton "plow", which have matches in many Caucasian languages, but none of them, according to V. Abaev, has no etymological roots of the word. Chuvash language can help in deciphering it, if we take into account the Chuv. cat "to split, dissect" and ana 1. "a site, a strip of land" 2. "the measure of land area."

Separate conversation should be held about the presence of Caucasian peoples among the Sarmatians. In addition to Kipchaks, you need to pay attention to the Kabardians and Chechens, especially the latter, which it can be seen in the section "Pechenegs and Hungarians"

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