Two “warrior women” from ancient Mongolia may have helped inspire Mulan’s ballad

Mongolian archaeologists found the remains of two ancient female warriors, whose skeletal remains indicate that they were well practiced in archery and horseback riding.

These two women lived during the Xianbei period (147-552 AD), a period of political fragmentation and unrest that gave rise to Mulan’s ballad, the researchers said.

Perhaps these women were so athletic because during the Xianbei period, “it may have been necessary for women to be needed to defend the home and the country together with men,” said study researchers Christine Lee and Yahaira Gonzalez, California State bioarchaeologists University, Los Angeles.

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Lee added that many historians pinpoint Mulan in the Xianbei period. There is a lot of research on Mulan’s ballad and “my research only reinforces what they found,” Lee told Live Science.

In the ballad, Mulan serves in the army so that his father doesn’t have to; But at that time, China had no military conscription, Lee said. In addition, the ballad notes that Mulan was fighting for khan, a term used for Mongolian leaders. However, Chinese authors were the first to transcribe the ballad, which is why it is viewed as a Chinese story, Lee said.

The research, which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, was presented at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists’ annual conference in mid-April, until the meeting was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lee worked China and Mongolia in the past 16 years. He discovered the remains of the two female warriors during an excavation of a cemetery in the archaeological site of Airagiin Gozgor, in the province of Orkhon, in northern Mongolia. Over the past four years, Lee and his colleagues have analyzed ancient human remains from 29 elite burials (16 males, 10 females, 3 unknown) on the site, for signs of long horseback riding, archery and trauma.

In particular, he observed bone signs from muscle attachments, as larger signs indicate that muscles were heavily used; for example, during archery. Repetitive motion markers on the thumb were also indicative of archery, Lee said. He also looked for trauma patterns in the spine that are common in people who ride horses.

While many of the men and teenagers had signs suggesting archery and horse riding, and some women had signs indicating one or the other, the two female warriors had signs of both, Lee said, who is the main researcher of the studia.

“They were probably pretty tough,” said Lee. “They are doing what men do. So, you can extrapolate it [and say] who have a certain gender equality. “

Any form of gender equality was fundamental for that period in Asia. “In neighboring China at the time, women were isolated,” said Lee. “The ideal woman was defenseless and docile, even though she was in the north [in Mongolia], they are not.”

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Mongolian culture did not have a written language before Genghis Khan (1162-1227), but other cultures, including Chinese, Koreans and Persians, wrote about the Mongols, said Lee. Towards 900 AD, women in Mongolia enjoyed freedoms not found in contemporary cultures; the Mongols had queens who led armies and received emissaries from the pope, Lee said. Additionally, the women were able to inherit the property and decide who they wanted to marry, she said.

“If they are already so independent from 900 AD, my thought was that you [can] extrapolate backwards, at least a couple of hundred years, because it has to come from somewhere, “Lee told Live Science.

He noted that the Chinese were writing propaganda about Mongolian women, “because they were saying it [women having power] it was a bad thing, and it is horrible and that these women have too much freedom and are sluts and they are horrible wives. ”

In essence, the Chinese were denigrating anyone who lived north of the wall, Lee said.

Of the two female warriors, one was over 50 and the other was around 20 years old. It is possible that they practiced archery and rode horses because these skills were necessary during the political instability that followed the collapse of the Han dynasty in China in 220 AD, Lee said.

No woman had signs of war trauma. This could be due to the fact that both women were found in elite graves and that elite people may not have fought in battles, Lee said.

Originally published on Live science.

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