"A fast horse and a soaring eagle are the wings of a nomad." — Kazakh proverb
Falconry, training raptors to hunt for game, is particularly suited to vast grasslands, especially in combination with horses and dogs. The earliest images of falconry appear in Assyrian and Hittite reliefs of the 9th and 8th centuries BC. Classical Greek and Roman authors Ctesias, Aristotle, Pliny, and Aelian described falconry, and in about AD 1270 Marco Polo detailed how the nomads of Central Asia hunted on horseback with small falcons, hawks, and eagles.
The Powerful Golden Eagle
For thousands of years, golden eagles have been the favorite raptor to train as a hunting companion across the northern steppes from the Caucasus to China. Eagles are strong predators especially adapted to winter hunting for hare, marmot, deer, fox, and even lynx and wolf, in snow-covered grasslands and mountain crags. Female eagles, larger, fiercer, and more powerful than males, are preferred. Fledglings or sub-adult eagles are captured and trained to hunt. After about 10 years they are released to the wild to mate and raise young.
Evidence pointing to eagle hunting's antiquity comes from Scythian and other burial mounds of nomads who roamed the steppes 3,000 years ago and whose artifacts abound in eagle imagery. An ancient Scythian nomad skeleton buried with an eagle was reportedly excavated near Aktobe Gorge, Kazakhstan. Ancient petroglyphs in the Altai region depict eagle hunters and inscribed Chinese stone reliefs show eagles perched on the arms of hunters in tunics, trousers, and boots, identified as northern nomads (1st to 2nd century AD). A Song Dynasty (AD 960) painting shows Khitan nomads of Manchuria practicing their ancient eagle hunting arts. Other eagle-hunting groups in the past included Jurchen, Oirat, Torghut, Kyrgyz, Kalmyk, Kirei, Altaian, Siberian, and Caucasus nomads.
Horse, Dog and Eagle
Eagle hunting lore is preserved in ancient poems of Central Asia, such as the Kyrgyz Manas epic, in which the hero's death is mourned by his horse, dog, and eagle. In ancient Caucasus legends about great heroes and heroines (Nart Sagas), hunters set forth on fine steeds, hounds trotting along and golden eagles on their arms: “Your horse is ready, your weapons and armor, your hounds and your eagle too.” In eagle hunting, dogs serve as beaters for the eagles.
“Our ancestors had three comrades,” goes the old Kazakh saying, “swift-foot, tazy, and bürkit” (fine horse, Taigan sighthound, and golden eagle). By training these three animals—horse, dog, and eagle—to be companions, the early nomads made the harsh, unforgiving steppes into a land rich with accessible game for furs and food. Today, the ancient arts of bürkitshi (berkutchi, eagle hunters) are carried on by Kazakh nomads dispersed in Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Xianjiang (northwest China). The tradition is handed down from generation to generation. One must be tough and patient to learn to hunt with such a formidable bird of prey as the golden eagle. There are nuanced, complex distinctions among capturing, domesticating, training, competing, and actually hunting with eagles.
Male bürkitshi are more common than females today, although eagle hunting has always been open to interested girls. Archaeology suggests that eagle huntresses were probably more common in ancient times. Spectacular archaeological discoveries of graves (ca 700 BC to AD 300) across ancient Scythia, from Ukraine to China, reveals that steppe nomad females engaged in riding and hunting activities and about one third of the women were active warriors in battle.
Unlike settled, patriarchal societies like classical Greece, where women stayed home to weave and mind children, the lives of nomadic steppe tribes centered on horses and archery. Men and women shared the vigorous outdoor life and everyone rode fast horses, shot arrows with deadly accuracy, hunted game, and defended the tribe. The combination of horse riding and archery was the equalizer: a woman on horseback is as fast and agile as a man. This ancient way of life—embracing gender equality—was essential for tribes migrating across oceans of grass, and egalitarian traditions persist in their descendants today.
Remarkable archaeological evidence of a female bürkitshi in antiquity emerged among the famous Urumqi mummies preserved for more than two millennia in the extremely dry Tarim Basin (Xinjiang). The tall, lavishly dressed bodies of men, women, and children were naturally mummified in the arrid desert sand, buried with horse gear, clothing, weapons, and other possessions. One woman wears a sheepskin coat over a colorful woolen skirt; on her left hand and forearm is a heavy leather falconry mitten. The exceptional size and thickness matches the distinctive bialeye, protective mitt, worn by eagle hunters in the same region today. Eagles weigh up to 12 pounds and have a very strong grip. To support the eagle on the rider's arm, a baldak, a Y-shaped wooden rest, is attached to the saddle.
Another piece of archaeological evidence for eagle hunting by women in antiquity came to light only recently, on an ancient golden ring (Greek, 425 BC) in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The full significance of the scene eluded understanding until now. The ring shows a nomad horsewoman, her hair and cloak blowing back to indicate the speed of her galloping horse. She has the reins choked up tight, with a spear in her left hand. The deer is so finely detailed that we can tell the species —a Eurasian spotted fallow buck with broad palmate antlers. Her dog is a Taigan sighthound like those used today by Kazakh eagle hunters.
Art historians had assumed the large bird was a random decoration. But in 2014, in The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, I identified this naturalistic scene as the earliest known image of a female eagle hunter. The bird hovering above the deer’s head is an eagle with hooked beak and spread wings and tail, about to attack the deer. The ring is compelling evidence that ancient Greek travelers, who first encountered steppe tribes in about 700 BC, had heard about or even observed nomadic horsewomen of eastern lands hunting with trained eagles and sighthounds.
In addition to artistic and archaeological evidence, an intriguing hint that women might have been more involved in eagle hunting in the past is embedded in a persistent folk belief. Kazakhs traditionally associate bürkitshi with fertility and childbirth. Today about 250 eagle hunters and a handful of young eagle huntresses are keeping the ancient tradition alive.
Nomad Women Have Hunted with Eagles since Antiquity
The ancient practice of eagle hunting is carried on today by a few hundred nomadic Kazakhs in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Xinjiang (northwest China). The majority of Kazakh eagle hunters live in Mongolia, and keep in touch with Kazakhs in other countries.
The Life of an Eagle Hunter
Both Mongolia and the Kazakh community have a long history of women's equality in education, government, medicine, and other fields. Girls and boys start riding horses at age five and help with herds and putting up gers. Women can compete in horse racing, archery, and wrestling. Eagle hunting is traditionally passed down among male relatives, but there are no religious or cultural prohibitions against a girl becoming an eagle hunter (bürkitshi, berkutchi ). Children commonly help to care for the eagles, go along on hunts, and attend eagle festivals. Anyone strong enough to carry an eagle can begin apprenticeship with one's own eagle. The traditional test of a bürkitshi is a successful hunting trip on horseback. Not everyone continues eagle hunting: military service, education, marriage, family, and employment can intervene.
The Eagle Huntress Princess Nirgidma
The turbulent history and isolation of Central Asia makes it difficult to trace eagle hunters in the modern era. A Mongol horsewoman-eagle huntress who became a celebrity in Europe in the 1920s was Princess Nirgidma (1907-1983). A highly educated member of the Torghut/Oirat/Kalmyk nomads who ranged from the Altai to the Tarim Basin, Nirgidma was photographed with her hunting eagle in 1932 in Urumqi (where the mummified eagle huntress now resides). “We Mongols are emancipated,” Nirgidma declared in a National Geographic interview, “a good horse and a wide plain, that's our desire.”
During the Soviet era, eagle hunting waned but began to reemerge in the late 20th century, with annual eagle contests, like the Sayat festival at Nura, Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan's Salburun festival began in 1997; Mongolia's festival began in Ulgii in 1999.
The Eagle Huntress Makpal Abdrazakova
In 2009, Reuters released a video of the young eagle huntress Makpal Abdrazakova competing in an eagle festival in Kazakhstan. In 2010, falconry historian Dennis Keen photographed Makpal with her eagle. By 2011, many photos, interviews, and videos in international media presented Makpal as the sole female bürkitshi in Kazakhstan. As a child she helped her father with his eagle and at 13 Makpal began training her own eagle Ak Zhelke (“White Neck”). Makpal says Kazakh elders (with one exception) gave their blessing because they “remembered that women used to hunt with horses, dogs, and eagles.”
Makpal, now a lawyer, continues to win eagle contests and encourages other young women. By 2012, her father Murat Abdrazakov was training three new girls aged 8, 12, and 15 in Kazakhstan. That year, a young horsewoman with an eagle appeared at the festival in Ulgii, Mongolia; in 2013, a young eagle huntress attended the festival in Nura, Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, in 2009-2013, the eagle hunter Kukan taught a young American woman, Lauren McGough, to be a bürkitshi.
Aisholpan Carries on Family Legacy of Eagle Hunting
In 2013, Asher Svidensky photographed Kazakh bürkitshi in Mongolia and with the help of his guide “discovered” Aisholpan Nurgaiv, the 13-year-old daughter of an eagle hunter. Her older brother had joined the army and Aisholpan was helping to carry on the family legacy. Svidensky's photo essay of Aisholpan posing with her father's eagle went viral in 2014. Apparently unaware of Makpal and other girls learning skills, Svidensky cited extreme cold and difficult terrain as the reason eagle hunting was reserved for males, and portrayed Aisholpan as the only girl. But since antiquity, the challenging conditions on the steppes have meant that men and women engaged in strenuous riding and other activities together.
In early 2014, inspired by Svidensky's photos, film maker Otto Bell flew to Mongolia to secure the rights to Aisholpan's story, stating that he “felt a sense of responsibility to carefully bring her story to life through film.” Svidensky and Bell returned later in 2014 to film Aisholpan capturing a fledgling eagle (Ak Kanat, “White Wings”) and competing in the festival in Ulgii, where she won her first eagle hunting contest.
The Truth Behind The Eagle Huntress
Bell's breathtaking documentary The Eagle Huntress previewed at Sundance in January 2016 to international acclaim. In interviews, press releases, and publicity for the film —despite widespread knowledge in 2014 of Makpal Adrazakova's prior eagle hunting — Aisholpan is presented as the only girl in history to become an eagle hunter, defying Kazakh elders' belief that women are "too fragile and weak." Bell characterizes Mongolia as backwards and claims that because the Kazakhs live in such isolation they “are ignorant about what women can do.” Interviewed in Mongolia's leading newspaper in 2016, however, Aisholpan's mother Alma stated that there are no restrictions on girls deciding to be eagle hunters. This fact is confirmed by several well-known Kazakh eagle hunters such as Agii Makhsum in Mongolia, and by other female bürkitshi in Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Kazakh families are deeply committed to preserving their ancient legacy.
Aisholpan's younger sister intends to carry on the family's heritage when Aisholpan leaves for college. An extraordinary young woman, Aisholpan has become an empowering example for girls around the world. Her achievements are impressive. But they are made possible not only by her own grit and skill but by her nomadic culture, in which women can be men's equals and girls can train eagles.
Documentary photography and films are expected to be ethnographically sensitive and factual, so it is surprising that the creators of Aisholpan's story for Western audiences fail to acknowledge Makpal's eagle hunting prowess. They also misrepresent the historical independence of women in Kazkah and Mongolian culture. Strong women have always been part of the venerable Kazakh nomad heritage and girls were never forbidden to train eagles. Mongolia is far from backwards: women have voted and held office since 1924 in Mongolia, more than 80 percent of women have secondary education, and 70 percent of college students are women.
New Generations Of Eagle Huntresses
In 2010, at age 5, Aisulu began helping her father Ardak train an eagle. Aisulu's parents approved her wish to be a burkitshi at age 11, noting that her grandfather would be very proud. At the 2014 Ulgii festival, while Bell filmed Aisholpan, yet another young eagle huntress in training captured attention: Amanbol, the 9-year-old daughter of the bürkitshi featured in the award-winning documentary The Eagle Hunter's Son (2009, dir. Renè Bo Hansen). The film starred her older brother Bazarbai when he was 12. After their father died, Bazarbai began teaching Amanbol to be an eagle huntress. As Belgian photographer Stefan Cruysberghs remarked, Amanbol and Bazarbai are “the new generation [who] will make sure these ancient traditions will be kept alive.”
In 2015, Aisholpan and Amanbol attended the Ulgii festival, along with a third young girl bürkitshi apprentice. She is the daughter of Shohan, a prominent eagle hunter in Mongolia.
Strength and Openness of the Kazakh Community
Historian of Central Asian falconry Takuya Soma points out that falconry disappeared in other less open, sedentary societies. In contrast, Soma notes, eagle hunting persisted and has a future among Kazakhs because of their traditional belief that women can participate in the same activities as men. The “chief reason why eagle hunting is still practiced” is the “absence of strict social regulations to join.” As Dennis Keen notes, "Curious adults and children absorb eagle hunting not just from 'masters' but from from the culture at large." Soma, Keen, McGough, and the Kazkahs themselves affirm that anyone young or old, male or female, is free to find a teacher, "capture and own their eagle, and hunt without any restrictions.” Rather than exclusive to “Kazakh masculinity," bürkitshi techniques are “shared with community members, elders, wives, and children,” even non-Kazakhs. This “open knowledge and free participation," open to anyone strong, capable, and determined enough, continues Soma, “is a remarkable trait in pastoralist society,” unlike the all-male elite hunting of sedentary cultures.
“Generally men used to participate in the festival” at Ulgii, remarks Mongolian photographer Batzaya Choijiljav, but “the younger generation” of eagle hunters includes girls, ensuring its future. The intrepid eagle huntresses Makpal, Aisholpan, Aisulu, Amanbol, and the new generation of eagle hunters' daughters are capturing world attention through photographs and film. The great excitement surrounding their extraordinary accomplishments is a powerful affirmation of the egalitarian values that were once taken for granted among the ancient steppe nomad cultures.
This post originally appeared at ancient-origins.net.
The Ancient Origins article was published April 6, 2016, reprinted in BUST on April 18, 2016.
The section of the article about Aisholpan carrying on her family's legacy reflected the ORIGINAL claims made by the filmmakers in their advertising, press releases, reviews, and interviews as of the writing, after the film was shown at Sundance in January to April 2016.
The sources for that section are all clearly documented at the end of the article (see the sources attached below; additional sources are listed in a long version of the article, available on my Stanford webpage).
The section about Aisholpan in the documentary was written in the hope that the documentary producers would change their claims to reflect the truth about the history of eagle hunting, Aisholpan's amazing accomplishments, other eagle huntresses past and present, and her culture.
In fact, soon after my article came out in April 2016, I was delighted to learn that the director and producers hired the noted Public Relations agent/"coach," Reid Rosefelt, to help them modify the previous public statements and create new, accurate PR for "The Eagle Huntress."
Indeed, they have now CHANGED their earlier official statements and in current PR materials and recent interviews they now say that Aisholpan was the first female in 12 generations of her family and the first female to compete in the Mongolian eagle festival.
These are true statements and they are different from their original claims in January to April 2016, in which they repeatedly stated that she was the first girl to train an eagle in 2,000 years and that her culture was "backward" and "misogynistic."
I stand by the accuracy of my article as written in Jan-April 2016.
The section on Aisholpan carrying out her family legacy was written expressly to address the misrepresentations current as of the writing and it succeeded in that aim.
Batsukh, Yanjmaa. 2016. Interview with Aisholpan. Udriin Sonin (Daily News, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia) Jan. 21.
Kremer, William. 2014. "A 13-year-old Eagle Huntress in Mongolia." BBC News Magazine, April 14.
Mosbergen, Dominique. 2014. "This 13-year-old Girl Hunts with Golden Eagles." Huffington Post, April 17-21.
Thomson, Augusta. 2015. "A Year After Her Photo Went Viral, How Has Teenage Eagle Hunter's Life Changed?" New York Times, Women in the World, Oct. 16.
Torrelio, Sebastian. 2014. "Kissaki Films' Otto Bell to Direct Ashol-Pan Documentary." Variety, July 16.
Top image: Featured image: 13 year old Asholpan, Eagle Huntress. (www.davidbaxendale.com, Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)
More from BUST
Adrienne Mayor, Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University, is the author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (2014), and The Poison King: Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.