The archaeologists made the discovery while excavating a cemetery in northern Mongolia.
Archaeologists found these skeletons of two people buried in an ancient tomb in Mongolia. The woman (left) may have been a horse-riding, bow-and-arrow-wielding warrior. Photo by Christine Lee.
Archaeologists have discovered the remains of what appear to be two 1,500-year-old warrior women in northern Mongolia, near the Chinese—the kind of fighters that may have inspired the story of Mulan.
The graves date to the fourth or fifth centuries, a time period marked by political unrest and associated with the rise of the legend of Mulan. The ancient Chinese folk tale, famously retold in the 1998 animated Disney film of the same name, is about a woman who disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place in the army, ultimately serving with distinction.
Close study of the skeletons suggests that the women, one about 20, the other over 50, were skilled at archery and had extensive experience on horseback, reports Live Science. Both had signs of trauma on their spine, a common injury among riders, and there were indications of repetitive motion of the thumbs, as one would see in archers.
“It may have been that women were needed to defend home and country alongside the men,” reads the abstract for a poster by California State University bioarchaeologists Christine Lee and Yahaira Gonzalez, originally slated for presentation at last month’s cancelled Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
The poster for Mulan (2020). Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
The two possible warrior women were buried in a cemetery at the Airagiin Gozgor archaeological site, in northern Mongolia’s Orkhon province. The women belonged to the Xianbei people, who dominated the region from the year 147 to 552.
“[It was] a period of mass migrations, short-lived states, and constant warfare between states. It’s the Asian Dark Ages,” Lee told Artnet News. “Xianbei women who helped defend their country were probably the inspiration for the original stories [of Mulan] long before they were written down centuries later.”
The tale of Mulan is often thought of as a Chinese story, but there are clues that point to the possibility of Mongolian origins. First, she was fighting for the khan, the title for Mongol leaders. And although Mulan stepped up so her father could avoid the draft, China didn’t have military conscription. The likely explanation is that China developed a written language earlier than the Mongols, transcribing a tale that originated in the country to its south, where women may have played a very different role in society.
“Chinese women were expected to stay at home. Northen nomadic women were traditionally more mobile and had more independence and freedom. They were allowed to make more decisions about their own lives,” Lee explained. “Xianbei women who helped defend their country were probably the inspiration for the original stories long before they were written down centuries later.”
Disney’s live-action adaptation of Mulan, starring Liu Yifei in the title role, was set to debut in March, but was pushed back as movie theaters across the globe shuttered. Currently, the studio is aiming for a July 24 opening for the film, should social distancing guidelines allow.
Lee plans to continue her search for the tombs of Mongolian female fighters, examining some that date as far back as 2,200 years old, she told Science News. “Badass women may go back a long way in northern Asian nomadic groups.”