We analyzed mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), Y-chromosome single nucleotide polymorphisms (Y-SNP), and autosomal short tandem repeats (STR) of three skeletons found in a 2,000-year-old Xiongnu elite cemetery in Duurlig Nars of Northeast Mongolia. This study is one of the first reports of the detailed genetic analysis of ancient human remains using the three types of genetic markers. The DNA analyses revealed that one subject was an ancient male skeleton with maternal U2e1 and paternal R1a1 haplogroups. This is the first genetic evidence that a male of distinctive Indo-European lineages (R1a1) was present in the Xiongnu of Mongolia. This might indicate an Indo-European migration into Northeast Asia 2,000 years ago. Other specimens are a female with mtDNA haplogroup D4 and a male with Y-SNP haplogroup C3 and mtDNA haplogroup D4. Those haplogroups are common in Northeast Asia. There was no close kinship among them. The genetic evidence of U2e1 and R1a1 may help to clarify the migration patterns of Indo-Europeans and ancient East-West contacts of the Xiongnu Empire. Artifacts in the tombs suggested that the Xiongnu had a system of the social stratification. The West Eurasian male might show the racial tolerance of the Xiongnu Empire and some insight into the Xiongnu society.
Some historical context. In the period around 200 BCE the Xiongnu confederation arose on the northern frontiers of China, which was being consolidated at that time under the Han dynasty. In other words, they were the first steppe people who existed in explicit tension with Imperial China, the beginning of a particular dyad which would recur throughout Chinese history. Prior to the Xiongnu the populations of the steppe seemed to be a rather inchoate group of barbarians from the viewpoint of the Chinese (some of whom were periodically assimilated into the Chinese system). After the Xiongnu rose to state of uncomfortable parity with the settled polities the Chinese ethnography becomes more detailed. The consolidation of nomad power seems to have been triggered by the spread of horse culture across northern China’s fringe, as well as the crystallization of the frontier of the Chinese state under the Qin and Han dynasties.
Who the individual of “western” provenance was seems clear in an ultimate sense. His origins were amongst the peoples that the Chinese termed the Yuezhi and Wusun. A medieval Chinese scholar noted: “Among the various Rong [alien races] in the Western Regions, the Wusun’s shape was the strangest; and the present barbarians who have green eyes and red hair, and are like macaques, belonged to the same race as the Wusun.” These were likely Indo-European speaking groups, some of whom were affiliated with the Tocharians. How did they get where they were? You can read Empires of the Silk Road or The Horse, the Wheel, and Language for some ideas. Their genetic impact remains evident in China today. The Uyghurs are almost certainly partly descended from them, although they are linguistically a Turkic group.
With all this in mind, it is not that surprising that a person of West Eurasian origin was found among the Xiongnu. Indo-Europeans from the west were resident in northwest China for at least 4,000 years ago. It is likely that they played a critical role in the introduction of chariot technology in Shang dynasty China around 1200 BCE. Widespread usage of cavalry seems to have become common among Inner Asian Indo-European groups around 1000, and it seems plausible to suggest that the spread of horse technology across Inner Asia revolutionized the cultures which were extant in that region as much as it did on the American Great Plains in the 18th century. Communication and transport from Mongolia to Hungary was now possible. The Avars, who dominated the Hungarian plain for two centuries between 600-800 CE, seem to have their origins in a Mongolian people who were defeated in the late 6th century and emigrated west in less than a generation. Many of the Turkic tribes who fought under Genghis Khan were Nestorian Christians. There were also Alans who helped conquer Song China for Kubilai Khan, the same ethnic group which eight centuries earlier had left Spain with the Vandals for North Africa.
The point of these obscure historical details is to show how common it was for populations to mix across Inner Asia after the rise of the horse. A “European looking” individual among the Xiongnu would likely have been atypical; ancient DNA extraction suggests they were an East Eurasian population. But by the time this individual was found among the Xiongnu these “European looking” populations had been extant to the west of the Xiongnu homelands for nearly 2,000 years! To Chinese peasants who were relatively immobile barbarians who resembled “macaques” would have been exotic indeed, but perhaps less so to nomadic populations who covered a great deal more ground as a matter of course. An inverse of the Chinese descriptions of the Wusun can be found in Roman reaction to the appearance of the Huns, whose elite seems to have had a distinct East Eurasian aspect to their appearance, and are described in extremely unflattering terms (though some have suggested that cranial modification might have resulted in a bizarre adult appearance, at least to outsiders).
But if the Inner Asian domain was so cosmopolitan why do we see such strong distinctions in physical traits and genetics, with groups such as the Uyghurs being definitely recent composites? From looking at the somewhat thin archaeology it seems that before the rise of domesticated animals vast swaths of the more marginal territory was simply uninhabited. So if there was a novel genetic mutation at one end of Eurasia, it could not flow fast enough to the other end if there was selective pressure favoring it. I think this is the best explanation for why light skin conferring genetic architecture is so different in East and West Eurasia. The cultural revolution triggered by domestication of the horse transformed this previous state; whereas before the vast semi-deserts of Inner Asia were barriers to flow of culture and genes, with the rise of horse-culture they were tracked by networks of trade and riven by far flung conflicts. Because of the small numbers of these people the genetic impact in terms of total ancestry upon settled populations has been marginal. It is very difficult to detect the genetic imprint of eastern nomadic groups in modern day Hungary or Turkey. But the cultural difference is more tangible.
Citation: A western Eurasian male is found in 2000-year-old elite Xiongnu cemetery in Northeast Mongolia, doi:10.1002/ajpa.21242