Russia’s Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, has suggested cloning a group of elite warriors using 3,000-year-old DNA found in the Siberian permafrost.
In April’s online session of the Russian Geographical Society, Shoigu, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, suggested that the bodies of Bronze Age Scythian warriors might yield enough viable DNA for a human cloning project.
“Of course, we would like very much to find the organic matter and I believe you understand what would follow that,” he said. “It would be possible to make something of it, if not Dolly the Sheep.
"In general," he said, "it will be very interesting.”
The Scythians were a warrior tribe who are believed to have originated in what would today be northern Iran. They are thought to have been among the first times to have mastered fighting on horseback.
At their peak, the Scythians dominated abroad sweep of territory around the Black Sea – taking in much of southern Russia and Ukraine.
From the end of the 1990s, a series of archaeological discoveries in Russia’s Tuva Republic revealed that Siberia had its own “Valley of the Kings,” with undisturbed Scythian graves containing the well-preserved skeletons of what appeared to be ancient noblemen and their horses.
When Shoigu formally inaugurated the most recent archaeological digs at the site, he called in a “modern-day shaman so as the excavations did not anger the spirits".
“The most interesting find was the remains of horse sacrifices with the elements of horse harnesses,” lead archaeologist Timur Sadykov said in 2018. “This once again confirms the cultural belonging of the kurgan to the range of monuments of the Valley of the Kings … where traces of ritual horse sacrifices were also found.”
But Shoigu wants to take the project away from historians and hand it over to scientists.
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'We have conducted several expeditions there already,” he said. “A lot of things have been confirmed, but a lot remains to be done.”
Shoigu’s reference to “Dolly the Sheep” – the sheep named after Dolly Parton that was the first successfully cloned mammal – is a hint at his thought process.
Of course there is a political, as well as a scientific agenda in play here. The territory of the ancient Scythian kings now takes in part of Ukraine that Russia would very much like to reclaim as its own.
The chance of Russia successfully cloning a human being from 3,000-year-old DNA is extremely remote. While a ferret that has been extinct for some 30 years was recently cloned by US scientists, the sheer age of the Scythian remains is likely to be a challenge too far for the cloners.
But the propaganda value of an attempt might prove invaluable for the Putin regime.
As freelance writer Marco Margaritoff put it: “Russia recently deployed about 100,000 soldiers to the Ukrainian border, after all, and a fantastic tale about cloning ancient warriors could serve well as a distraction cooked up by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.”
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