In the year 555 AD, the Rouran Khaganate, based in northeast Asia, was defeated and scattered by a Turkish invasion. Around 567-8, a new nomadic group known as the Avars came to Eastern Europe. Now, a new genetic study has linked these two groups.
The study, published in the journal Cell, analysed 66 individuals from the Carpathian Basin. The study included the eight richest Avar graves ever discovered, overflowing with golden objects, as well as other individuals from the region prior to and during the Avar age. “We address a question that has been a mystery for more than 1400 years: who were the Avar elites, mysterious founders of an empire that almost crushed Constantinople and for more than 200 years ruled the lands of modern-day Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Austria, Croatia and Serbia?”, explains Johannes Krause, senior author of the study.
The Rouran Khaganate was established around the year 330 as a tribal confederation that ruled over a wide swath of land centred around present-day Mongolia. They frequently raided and fought with Chinese states. However, in the 550s, the Rouran came into conflict with the Turkic Khaganate, and by 555 were completely defeated. Historians have speculated that some of the Rouran moved across the Eurasian Steppe and settled in southeastern Europe. It was here that the Avars established an empire that lasted until the early ninth century.
Archaeological research has pointed to many parallels between the Carpathian Basin and Eurasian nomadic artefacts (weapons, vessels, horse harnesses), for instance a lunula-shaped pectoral of gold used as a symbol of power. We also know that the Avars introduced the stirrup in Europe. Yet we have so far not been able to trace their origin in the wide Eurasian steppes.
In this new study, a multidisciplinary team – including researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, the ELTE University and the Institute of Archaeogenomics of Budapest, Harvard Medical School in Boston, the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton – found strong evidence of genetic connections between people from the Rouran Khaganate and the Avars.
Guido Gnecchi-Ruscone, the lead author of the study, comments that, “Besides their clear affinity to Northeast Asia and their likely origin due to the fall of the Rouran Empire, we also see that the 7th-century Avar period elites show 20 to 30 percent of additional non-local ancestry, likely associated with the North Caucasus and the Western Asian Steppe, which could suggest further migration from the Steppe after their arrival in the 6th century.”
The East Asian ancestry is found in individuals from several sites in the core settlement area between the Danube and Tisza rivers in modern day central Hungary. However, outside the primary settlement region they found high variability in inter-individual levels of admixture, especially in the south-Hungarian site of Kölked. This suggests an immigrant Avars elite ruling a diverse population with the help of a heterogeneous local elite.
One of the most interesting aspects of the research is that it shows how a people were able to move vast distances during the Middle Ages. “The historical contextualization of the archaeogenetic results allowed us to narrow down the timing of the proposed Avar migration,” explains Choongwon Jeong, co-senior author of the study. “They covered more than 5000 kilometres in a few years from Mongolia to the Caucasus, and after ten more years settled in what is now Hungary. This is the fastest long-distance migration in human history that we can reconstruct up to this point.”
The article, “Ancient genomes reveal origin and rapid trans-Eurasian migration of 7th century Avar elites,” by Guido Alberto Gnecchi-Ruscone, Anna Szécsényi-Nagy, István Koncz, Zuzana Hofmanová, Choongwon Jeong, Johannes Krause et al., is published in Cell. Click here to read it.
Top Image: Reconstruction of an Avar-period armoured horseman based on Grave 1341/1503 of the Derecske-Bikás-dűlő site (Déri Museum, Debrecen). © Ilona C. Kiss