Unraveling the genetic diversity and social structure of the Xiongnu empire

Thanks to painstaking archaeological excavations and new ancient DNA evidence, the world’s first nomadic empire, the Xiongnu, is finally emerging from the shadows of history. This powerful political force arose on the Mongolian steppe 1,500 years before the Mongols, and its influence extended from Egypt to Rome to Imperial China.

The Xiongnu were economically based on animal husbandry and dairying, and they built their empire on horseback. Their mastery of mounted warfare made them swift and formidable adversaries, and their legendary conflicts with Imperial China led to the construction of the Great Wall.

Despite their significant accomplishments, the Xiongnu did not develop a writing system, and thus historical records about them are limited to accounts written by their enemies and rivals, primarily Han Dynasty chroniclers. As a result, little is known about the Xiongnu’s origins, political rise, or social structure.

Recent archaeogenetics research has traced the Xiongnu’s political emergence to a sudden migration and blending of various nomadic groups in northern Mongolia around 200 BCE, but this discovery has raised more questions than answers.

To gain a better understanding of the enigmatic Xiongnu empire, an international team of researchers from the Max Planck Institutes for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA) and Geoanthropology (MPI-GEO), Seoul National University, the University of Michigan, and Harvard University conducted a comprehensive genetic study of two imperial elite Xiongnu cemeteries located on the western edge of the empire: an aristocratic elite cemetery at Takhiltyn Khotgor and a local elite cemetery at Shombuuzyn Belchir. Their findings are published in the journal Science Advances.

Excavation of the Xiongnu Elite Tomb 64 containing a high status aristocratic woman at the site of Takhiltiin Khotgor, Mongolian Altai. Credit: © J. Bayarsaikhan

The Xiongnu were known to possess a considerable amount of genetic diversity, but the absence of community-level genomic data meant that it was unclear whether this diversity arose from locally homogenous communities that were heterogeneously patched together or whether the local communities themselves were genetically diverse. As Juhyeon Lee, Seoul National University Ph.D. student and the study’s lead author, explains, the team was interested in understanding how genetic diversity was organized at various social and political levels, as well as how it correlated with power, wealth, and gender.

The rise of a multiethnic empire

The study revealed that individuals from the two Xiongnu cemeteries exhibited an exceptionally high level of genetic diversity comparable to that found across the entire empire. This finding confirmed that the Xiongnu Empire was a multiethnic empire characterized by diversity and heterogeneity at all levels, including individual families and communities. However, the researchers observed that the genetic diversity was stratified by status.

Individuals of lower status, who were interred as satellite burials of the elites and were likely servants, exhibited the highest genetic diversity and heterogeneity. This suggests that they originated from distant parts of the empire or even beyond. On the other hand, local and aristocratic elites buried in wood-plank coffins within square tombs and stone ring graves showed lower genetic diversity and a higher proportion of eastern Eurasian ancestries, indicating that the concentration of elite status and power occurred among specific genetic subgroups of the broader Xiongnu population. Nonetheless, even elite families used marriage to solidify ties with newly integrated groups, particularly at Shombuuzyn Belchir.

Excavation of the Xiongnu Elite Tomb 64 containing a high status aristocratic woman at the site of Takhiltiin Khotgor, Mongolian Altai. Credit: © Michel Neyroud

Dr. Choongwon Jeong, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Seoul National University and the senior author of the study, said that the research provides a better understanding of how the Xiongnu expanded their empire by incorporating different groups and employing marriage and kinship to build their empire.

Powerful women in Xiongnu society

Another significant finding was that Xiongnu women held prominent political positions in the expansion and integration of new territories along the empire’s frontier. High status burials and elite grave goods were mainly associated with women, confirming textual and archaeological evidence of their critical roles in Xiongnu society.

The aristocratic elite cemetery at Takhiltyn Khotgor revealed that the monumental tombs were built for women, accompanied by commoner males buried in simple graves. These women were interred in elaborate coffins decorated with the golden sun and moon emblems of Xiongnu imperial power, and one tomb contained six horses and a partial chariot.

Similarly, at the nearby local elite cemetery of Shombuuzyn Belchir, the wealthiest and most elaborate graves belonged to women. The grave goods included wooden coffins, golden emblems, gilded objects, glass and faience beads, Chinese mirrors, a bronze cauldron, silk clothing, wooden carts, more than a dozen livestock, as well as objects conventionally associated with male horse-mounted warriors. These items conveyed the immense political power held by Xiongnu women.

Archaeological excavation at the Shombuuziin Belchir Xiongnu cemetery, Mongolian Altai. Credit: © J. Bayarsaikhan

“Xiongnu women were critical agents of the imperial state along the frontier, maintaining traditions, holding exclusive noble ranks, and engaging in both steppe power politics and the Silk Road networks of exchange,” says Dr. Bryan Miller, Assistant Professor of Central Asian Art & Archaeology at the University of Michigan and project archaeologist.

Children in Xiongnu society

Through genetic analysis, researchers gained rare insights into the roles of children in Xiongnu society. “Differential mortuary treatment of children based on age and sex provides clues to when gender and status were assigned in Xiongnu society,” explains senior author Dr. Christina Warinner, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University and Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

The analysis showed that Xiongnu boys as young as 11-12 years old were buried with a bow and arrows similar to adult males. However, younger boys were not buried in the same manner, indicating that the gendered social roles of hunters and warriors were not ascribed to boys until later childhood or early adolescence.

An Egyptian-style faience bead worn as part of a necklace by a young woman buried with an infant in Grave 19 of the Shombuuziin Belchir cemetery. Such beads, depicting the phallus of the Egyptian god Bes, are associated with the protection of children. Credit: © Bryan K. Miller
Golden icons of the sun and moon, symbols of the Xiongnu, decorating the coffin found in Elite Tomb 64 at the Takhiltiin Khotgor site, Mongolian Altai. Credit: © J. Bayarsaikhan
Child’s bow and arrow set from Grave 26 at the Shombuuziin Belchir cemetery. Credit: © Bryan K. Miller

The legacy of the Xiongnu today

The Xiongnu empire may have collapsed in the late 1st century CE, but the study’s findings suggest that the social and cultural legacy of the Xiongnu endured. The tradition of elite princesses playing important roles in the political and economic life of empires, particularly in peripheral regions, began with the Xiongnu and continued for over a thousand years under the Mongol Empire. “Nomadic empires have often been viewed as fragile and short-lived, but their enduring traditions and legacies suggest otherwise,” says Dr. Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan, project archaeologist and coordinator of the Mongolian Archaeology Project: Surveying the Steppes (MAPSS) at the Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology.

Source: Max Planck Society

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