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Women of the Mongolian Steppe expanded two empires 1,500 years apart, study says

The first of several nomadic empires in Asia, the Xiongnu relied on elite women to diversify its gene pool and access the far reaches of its empire.

(CN) — Long before the Mongol Empire was the Xiongnu — a society that a team of international researchers calls the first of several nomadic empires of Inner Asia. They buried their servants in satellite burials and interred their aristocratic elites in square tombs containing their wood-plank coffins.

While today they may be overshadowed by the Mongol Empire, the Xiongnu appeared on the Mongolian steppe 1,500 years earlier, according to a study published on Friday in the journal Science Advances. During the Iron Age, their empire controlled territories from Egypt to Rome to Imperial China.

The Xiongnu empire was multiethnic on all levels of society — though the study says this varied with social status. Meanwhile, Xiongnu women were a driving force of the empire's multiethnicity, the study argues, as evidenced by one young woman who likely died in childbirth.

Buried with an infant, the young woman wore an Egyptian faience amulet of the god Bes, the protector of children.

“She was also laid to rest with Chinese silk garments and pieces of intricately decorated Chinese bronze mirrors, a practice common among Xiongnu steppe elites,” Bryan Miller, project archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Central Asian Art & Archaeology at the University of Michigan, said in an email. “When considered alongside the Egyptian-style phallus bead, it demonstrates that even low-level elites such as her, who lived in communities at the very social and spatial fringe of the nomadic empire, were enmeshed in the continental-scale exchanges of the early Silk Roads.”

Women "held great power as agents of the Xiongnu imperial state along the frontier," Miller added, "often holding exclusive noble ranks, maintaining Xiongnu traditions, and engaging in both steppe power politics and the so-called Silk Road networks of exchange.”

The Xiongnu did not have a written history, except for what Han Dynasty chroniclers and other outsiders jotted down. To study them, researchers instead examined both an aristocratic elite cemetery at Takhiltyn Khotgor and a local elite cemetery at Shombuuzyn Belchir, both along the western frontier of the enigmatic empire.

Prof. Dr. Christina Warinner, an associate professor of anthropology at Harvard University and senior author of the study, observed that some elite families at Shombuuzyn Belchir incorporated neighboring groups through strategic marriages. Local and aristocratic elites generally had high proportions of eastern Eurasian ancestries, while those of servant status had the highest genetic diversity.

Eventually, the Mongols outpaced their predecessor and became the world's largest contiguous land empire, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. Still, both the the Mongols and the Xiongnu shared a renown for "advanced horsemanship and openness to foreign cultures and ideas," Warinner, who is also affiliated with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said in an email.

By the time the empire disintegrated in the late 1st century CE, elite princesses were “playing critical roles in the political and economic life of the empires, especially in periphery regions" that continued under the Mongol Empire, Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan, project archaeologist and coordinator of the "Mongolan Archaeology Project: Surveying the Steppes" (MAPSS) project at the Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology, said.

"History has at times dismissed nomadic empires as fragile and short," Bayarsaikhan said, but "their strong traditions have never been broken.”

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Categories / History, International, Science

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