The multiethnic structure of Mongolia’s first nomadic dynasty is revealed by ancient DNA

The Xiongnu dominated the Eurasian steppes and foreshadowed the Mongol Empire.


The Xiongnu, contemporaries of Rome and Egypt, established their nomadic empire on the Mongolian steppe 2,000 years ago, emerging as Imperial China’s most formidable adversary and inspiring the construction of China’s Great Wall.

According to a new study, the Xiongnu were a multiethnic empire with high genetic diversity throughout the empire and within individual extended elite families. Women held the highest positions of power on the outskirts of the empire. The highest genetic diversity was found among low-status male servants, providing clues to the process of empire-building that gave rise to Asia’s first nomadic imperial power.

The world’s first nomadic empire, the Xiongnu empire, is finally being revealed thanks to archaeological excavations and new ancient DNA evidence. The Xiongnu empire arose on the Mongolian steppe 1,500 years before the Mongols. It became one of Iron Age Asia’s most powerful political forces, eventually stretching its reach and influence from Egypt to Rome to Imperial China. 

The Xiongnu were famously nomadic and built their empire on the backs of horses. Their economy was based on animal husbandry and dairying. Their skill at mounted warfare made them swift and formidable adversaries, and their legendary conflicts with Imperial China eventually led to the construction of the Great Wall.

Juhyeon Lee, the first author of the study and Ph.D. student at Seoul National University, said, “We wanted to know how much genetic diversity was structured at different social and political scales, as well as in relation to power, wealth, and gender. We knew that the Xiongnu had a high degree of genetic diversity. However, due to a lack of community-scale genomic data, it remained unclear whether this diversity emerged from a heterogeneous patchwork of locally homogenous communities or whether local communities were genetically diverse.” 

They discovered that the Xiongnu had a high level of genetic diversity. However, it was found that individuals in the two cemeteries displayed extremely high genetic diversity, comparable to that found throughout the Xiongnu Empire. This was revealed by the excavation of the Xiongnu Elite Tomb 64, which contained a high-status aristocratic woman at the site of Takhiltiin Khotgor, Mongolian Altai.

However, a lot of this variation was divided according to social class. The lowest rank individuals displayed the greatest genetic variation and diversity, indicating that they came from remote regions of the Xiongnu Empire or elsewhere. 

Elite status and power may have been concentrated among particular genetic subsets of the larger Xiongnu population, as suggested by the lower overall genetic diversity and higher proportions of eastern Eurasian ancestries found in local and aristocratic elites interred in square tombs and stone ring graves. Particularly in Shombuuzyn Belchir, even wealthy families have exploited marriage to fortify ties to recently incorporated communities. We now have a clearer understanding of how the Xiongnu grew their empire by integrating many groups and utilizing marriage and concubinage.

Researchers discovered that high-status Xiongnu burials and elite grave goods were disproportionately associated with women, correlating with textual and archaeological evidence that Xiongnu women played particularly prominent political roles in the expansion and integration of new territories along the empire’s frontier.

They also discovered that the elite monumental tombs at Takhiltyn Khotgor were built for women, with each prominent woman flanked by a slew of commoner males buried in simple graves. The women were buried in elaborate coffins emblazoned with the golden sun and moon emblems of Xiongnu imperial power. One tomb even housed a team of six horses and a partial chariot.

Women occupied the wealthiest and most elaborate graves at the nearby Shombuuzyn Belchir elite cemetery. The grave goods included wooden coffins, golden emblems and gilded objects, glass and faience beads, Chinese mirrors, a bronze cauldron, silk clothing, wooden carts, more than a dozen livestock, as well as three items typically associated with male horse-mounted warriors.

Bryan Miller, project archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Central Asian Art & Archaeology at the University of Michigan, said, “Women held great power as agents of the Xiongnu imperial state along the frontier, often holding exclusive noble ranks, maintaining Xiongnu traditions, and engaging in both steppe power politics and the so-called Silk Road networks of exchange.” 

Genetic analysis also provided rare insights into the social roles of children in Xiongnu society.

Senior author Christina Warinner, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University and Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology said, “Children received differential mortuary treatment depending upon age and sex, giving clues to the ages at which gender and status were ascribed in Xiongnu society.” 

They found that while younger boys were not, teenage Xiongnu males as young as eleven to twelve were buried with a bow and arrows. This shows that males were only assigned the gendered social responsibilities of hunter and warrior in late childhood or early adolescence.

Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan, project archaeologist and Mongolian Archaeology Project: Surveying the Steppes project coordinator at the Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology, said, “Our results confirm the long-standing nomadic tradition of elite princesses playing critical roles in the political and economic life of the empires, especially in periphery regions – a tradition that began with the Xiongnu and continued more than a thousand years later under the Mongol Empire While history has at times dismissed nomadic empires as fragile and short, their strong traditions have never been broken.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Juhyeon Lee, Bryan K. Miller, Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan, etal.Genetic population structure of the Xiongnu Empire at imperial and local scales. Science Advances. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adf3904
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