In Mongolia, archaeologists discovered the remains of two ancient female warriors who lived 1,500 years ago

Two ancient women warriors’ remains have been discovered by archaeologists in Mongolia, and their skeletal remains show that they were skilled in archery and horseback riding.

According to the experts, these two women lived during the Xianbei period (A.D. 147 to 552), a time of political upheaval and disintegration that gave rise to the Ballad of Mulan.

According to study authors Christine Lee and Yahaira Gonzalez, bioarchaeologists at California State University, Los Angeles, “it may have been that women were needed to protect family and country alongside the men” during the Xianbei period, which is when these women lived.

Many historians, Lee continued, attribute Mulan to the Xianbei era. The Ballad of Mulan has been the subject of extensive investigation, and according to Lee, “my research only validates what they’ve been discovering.”

The Ballad of Mulan might have been influenced by two 1,500-year-old bones that were discovered by archaeologists in Mongolia. The remains belonged to two women who are thought to have been fighters during the Xianbei period (left is one of the warrior women)

In the ballad, Mulan serves in the military so that her father doesn’t have to; but at that time, China didn’t have military conscription, Lee said. Moreover, the ballad notes that Mulan was fighting for the khan, a term used for Mongolian leaders. However, Chinese authors were the first to transcribe the ballad, which is probably why it’s seen as a Chinese story, Lee said.

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

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

In particular, she looked at bone marks from muscle attachments, as larger marks indicate that the muscles were heavily used; for instance, during archery. Markers of repetitive movement on the thumb were also indicative of archery, Lee said. She also looked for trauma patterns in the spine that are common in people who ride horses.

According to the Ballad of Mulan, every family in the region was forced to send one man from the family to join the military, as the area was riddled with conflict. Mulan took her old, ailing father’s place in the ranks, sparking the legend that was adopted by Disney in 1998 and is being released as a live action film (pictured) this year

While many of the men and adolescents had signs suggestive of archery and horseback riding, and some of the women had marks indicating they did one or the other, the two warrior women had signs of both, said Lee, who is the lead researcher of the study.

“They were probably pretty badass,” Lee said. “They’re doing what the men are doing. So, you can extrapolate from that [and say] that they have some gender equality.”

Any form of gender equality was momentous for that period in Asia. “In neighboring China at that time, women were secluded,” Lee said. “The ideal woman was helpless and docile, while being in the north [in Mongolia], they’re not.”


Before Genghis Khan (r. 1162–1227), the Mongolian society lacked a written language, but, according to Lee, other cultures such as the Chinese, Koreans, and Persians wrote about the Mongolians. According to Lee, Mongolian women had liberties by the year 900 A.D.; the country had kings who oversaw armies and received ambassadors from the Pope. She added that women might inherit property and choose who they wished to marry.

“If they’re already that independent by 900 A.D., my thinking was that you [can] extrapolate backward, at least a couple hundred years, because it has to come from somewhere,” Lee told Live Science.

She noted that the Chinese were writing propaganda about the Mongolian women, “because they were saying that it [women having power] was a bad thing, and that’s horrible and that these women have too much freedom and they’re slutty and they’re horrible wives.”

In essence, Lee claimed, the Chinese were demeaning everybody who resided north of the wall.

One of the two warrior ladies was about 50 years old, and the other was around 20. In order to survive the political unrest that followed the Han Dynasty’s collapse in China in A.D. 220, it’s probable that they trained in archery and horseback riding.

Both women showed no symptoms of battle trauma. According to Lee, this could be the case because both women were discovered in elite burials, and elite people may not have participated in conflicts.

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