Princesses have played crucial roles in the organization and structure of empires throughout history, yet their contributions have often been overlooked. From the Greeks to the Mughals to the Mongols, princesses have played important roles by solidifying alliances, influencing architectural policies, and upholding the empire’s values. A new study sheds light on the nomadic elite of the Xiongnu empire in Iron Age Asia (around 200 BC), previously only studied through the lens of their enemies and rivals.
Having never developed a writing system themselves, the story of the Xiongnu has been a tough nut to crack, but recent archaeological excavations and genetic studies are changing the narrative entirely. Xiongnu was one of the most powerful empires from the period and the new study published in Sciences Advances suggests that the tradition of elite princesses playing a critical role in the Xiongnu nomadic tribe, a periphery region, seeped into the Mongol tradition a full thousand years later! They based their findings on discoveries made at two cemeteries on the edge of the Xiongnu empire uncovered for the first time in 2007.
The Xiongnu supported themselves economically through animal husbandry and dairying, and were adept horse-riders, which they used effectively to build their empire. Their cavalry skills brought them into a number of documented clashes with Imperial China – forcing the construction of the Great Wall.
A traveling nomad family led by a man in belted jacket and trousers, pulling a nomadic cart. Belt buckle from Mongolia or southern Siberia, dated to 2nd-1st century BC (Xiongnu period). ( Public Domain )
A High Degree of Genetic Diversity: Princesses and Social Alliances
“We knew that the Xiongnu had a high degree of genetic diversity, but 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 themselves genetically diverse,” explains Juhyeon Lee, first author of the study and Ph.D. student at Seoul National University. “We wanted to know how such genetic diversity was structured at different social and political scales, as well as in relation to power, wealth, and gender.”
The Xiongnu built a multiethnic empire on the Mongolian steppe that was connected by trade to Rome, Egypt, and Imperial China. ( ©Artwork by Galmandakh Amarsanaa, courtesy of Christina Warinner and the DairyCultures Project )
An international team of researchers from the Max Planck Institutes for Evolutionary Anthropology and Geoanthropology, Seoul National University, the University of Michigan, and Harvard University conducted an in-depth genetic investigation of two imperial elite Xiongnu cemeteries along the western frontier of the empire. They released further explanations in a well-articulated press release .
“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,” says Dr. Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan, project archaeologist and Mongolian Archaeology Project: Surveying the Steppes (MAPSS) project coordinator at the Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology.
The researchers found that individuals within the two cemeteries exhibited extremely high genetic diversity, comparable to that found across the Xiongnu Empire as a whole. The high genetic diversity and heterogeneity were present at all levels, including across the empire, within individual communities, and even within individual families. This confirms the characterization of the Xiongnu Empire as a multiethnic empire, who were deliberately mixing their population, through economic incentives or force, according to a report by Science.
The Question of Status: Elites vs The Rest
However, much of this diversity was stratified by status. The lowest status individuals, likely reflecting a servant status and interred as satellite burials of the elites, exhibited the highest genetic diversity and heterogeneity. This suggests that these individuals originated from far-flung parts of the Xiongnu Empire or beyond.
In contrast, local and aristocratic elites buried in wood-plank coffins within square tombs and stone ring graves exhibited lower overall genetic diversity and harbored higher proportions of eastern Eurasian ancestries. This suggests that elite status and power were concentrated among specific genetic subsets of the broader Xiongnu population. Nevertheless, even elite families appear to have used marriage to cement ties to newly incorporated groups, especially at Shombuuzyn Belchir.
Excavation of the Xiongnu Elite Tomb 64 containing a high-status aristocratic woman at the site of Takhiltiin Khotgor, Mongolian Altai. ( J. Bayarsaikhan )
One of the major findings of the study was that high status Xiongnu burials and elite grave goods were disproportionately associated with women, corroborating textual and archaeological evidence that Xiongnu women played especially prominent political roles in the expansion and integration of new territories along the empire’s frontier.
At the aristocratic elite cemetery of Takhiltyn Khotgor, the researchers found that the elite monumental tombs had been built for women. Each prominent woman was flanked by a host of commoner males buried in simple graves. The women were interred in elaborate coffins with the golden sun and moon emblems of Xiongnu imperial power. One tomb even contained a team of six horses and a partial chariot, reports Technology Networks .
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. (J. Bayarsaikhan )
At the nearby local elite cemetery of Shombuuzyn Belchir, women likewise occupied the wealthiest and most elaborate graves. Grave goods consisted of wooden coffins, golden emblems and gilded objects, glass and faience beads, Chinese mirrors, a bronze cauldron, silk clothing, wooden carts, and more than a dozen livestock. The women also had three objects conventionally associated with male horse-mounted warriors: a Chinese lacquer cup, a gilded iron belt clasp, and horse tack. Such objects and their symbolism convey the great political power of the women.
“We now have a better idea of how the Xiongnu expanded their empire by incorporating disparate groups and leveraging marriage and kinship into empire building,” concluded senior author Dr. Choongwon Jeong, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Seoul National University.
Top image: Representation of an elite Mongolian woman. Source: [email protected] / Adobe Stock.
By Sahir Pandey
Curry, A. 2023. Politically savvy princesses wove together a vast ancient empire . Available at: https://www.science.org/content/article/politically-savvy-princesses-wove-together-vast-ancient-empire.
Lee, J., Miller, B.K., et al . 2023. Genetic population structure of the Xiongnu Empire at imperial and local scales . Sciences Advances, 9(5). Available at: https://doi/10.1126/sciadv.adf3904.
Leon, K. 2023. Women of the Mongolian Steppe expanded two empires 1,500 years apart, study says . Available at: https://www.courthousenews.com/women-of-the-mongolian-steppe-expanded-two-empires-1500-years-apart-study-says/.
Whelan, S. 2023. Ancient DNA Reveals History of Mongolia’s First Nomadic Empire . Available at: https://www.technologynetworks.com/genomics/news/ancient-dna-reveals-history-of-mongolias-first-nomadic-empire-372152/