Scientists have shed light on the multiethnic and mysterious Xiongnu empire, Mongolia’s ancient nomadic society that reigned from circa 200 BCE to 100 CE and
The tribes of Xiongnu were considered the main threat by Emperor Qin Shi Huang
during the 3rd century BCE Qin Dynasty when he decided to defend unified China with the concept of a “Great Wall.” The emperor began work on the wall in 221 BCE by connecting a number of existing defensive walls along the northern border of China into a single system. The wall was further strengthened against the Xiongnu during the reign of the Han emperor Wudi (141–87 BCE).
In a new study published in the journal Science Advances, an international research team revealed details regarding the society’s community structure after analyzing ancient DNA and archaeological findings from two separate burial grounds. The first site was an aristocratic elite cemetery at Takhiltyn Khotgor, while the other was a local elite cemetery at Shombuuzyn Belchir.
Previous studies cited by the research team found an “extremely high” level of genetic diversity from the genomes of 17 remains they exhumed, indicating that the group was “multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual.” The team’s own analysis of 18 individuals of both high and low status — as determined by their burials — corroborated said studies.
According to the scientists, the burial practice also hinted at the ages at which gender and status were ascribed in Xiongnu society.
Women were revealed to have an important and influential role, as they were found to have the highest-status individual graves. They were buried in elaborate coffins that featured golden sun and moon emblems — Xiongnu symbols of power. In one tomb that held the remains of a woman, the scientists also found the remains of six horses and a chariot.
Harvard University Associate Professor Christina Warinner, the study’s senior author, noted that “children received differential mortuary treatment depending upon age and sex.” They found that adolescent boys were buried with bows and arrows, just like adult men, while boys under 11 were not.
Choongwon Jeong, an associate professor of biological sciences at Seoul National University, shared that members of the Xiongnu society leveraged marriage and kinship to build their empire.
The Xiongnu’s influence extends to Genghis Khan and his Mongol Empire, among other succeeding nomadic empires.
Bryan Miller, the project archaeologist for the study and assistant professor of Central Asian art and archaeology at the University of Michigan, highlighted such influence in an email to CNN.
“Xiongnu” was the name of a dynasty not a people, per se; but that dynastic regime greatly impacted the peoples within its realms and left a powerful legacy in Eurasia. Many subsequent groups appropriated the potent name of Xiongnu (or Hunnu) as they established their own regimes, leading to the perpetuation of so-called “Hunnic” entities even as far as that of Attila and the Huns at the edge of Europe centuries after the demise of the Xiongnu in Inner Asia.