The barbarian invasions, illuminated by genetics

My own comprehension or understanding of the fall of Rome and the barbarian invasions probably began when I was about nine years old when I read a book about the various peoples who crashed the gates of civilization. First and foremost in the various descriptions were the Huns, a mysterious and fearsome race who in previous times had almost a talismanic role in the history of this period. Like the Mongols later on, they were more a force of nature that illustrated the hand of an angry God in the world than a people with their own agency.

But their identity was, and is, mysterious. Though contemporary descriptions seem to describe them as alien and repulsive in physiognomy, by the 19th century these antique descriptions were filtered through the racialist framework ascendent in the West of that period to cast them as foreign Asiatics. By the 20th century, a reaction set in and attempts to adduce the Huns’ possible connection to Central Asia seem to have diminished, though no one could deny the proposition either.

The fact that the ethnolinguistic affiliation of the Huns is mysterious to us should give a clue that they weren’t related to the standard Germanic or Iranian groups which operated on the fringes of the European Roman world. If the latter surprises you in the context of the European frontier of the Roman Empire, the Sarmatian tribes which pushed into Hungary and harried Rome defenses were related to groups like the Scythians, and branches eventually gave rise to the Alans (who ended up in the North African kingdom of the Vandals!) and Ossetians.* The German peoples have been observed by the Romans since the time of Cimbri invasions, and the later eruptions were easy to slot into that ethnographic framework.

In contrast, the Huns are mysterious precisely because they were a new cultural force. They seemed to be pure nomads like the Sarmatians, but not out of the Iranian steppe cultural milieu. Though they may have been a linguistic isolate, the most likely probability is that they spoke a Uralic (e.g., Hungarian) or Altaic language (e.g., Turkish). Like later steppe nomad hordes which burst out of Inner Asia into the Eurasian oikumene the genius of the Huns was in part organizational, as they accrued to their confederacy a motley of German and Iranian tribes. One standard narrative of the Gothic migrations is that their peregrinations were triggered by the movement of the Huns and their allies to their east and north.

An extreme social constructionist might assert that the term “Hun” simply brackets a new way to organize mobile barbarians beyond the Roman frontier. That they were not ethnically distinct. Though I don’t know anyone who holds to this extreme view, it’s not entirely impossible.

But now we have some genetic data. Population genomic analysis of elongated skulls reveals extensive female-biased immigration in Early Medieval Bavaria:

…we generated genomic data from 41 individuals dating mostly to the late 5th/early 6th century AD from present-day Bavaria in southern Germany, including 11 whole genomes (mean depth 5.56×). In addition we developed a capture array to sequence neutral regions spanning a total of 5 Mb and 486 functional polymorphic sites to high depth (mean 72×) in all individuals. Our data indicate that while men generally had ancestry that closely resembles modern northern and central Europeans, women exhibit a very high genetic heterogeneity; this includes signals of genetic ancestry ranging from western Europe to East Asia. Particularly striking are women with artificial skull deformations; the analysis of their collective genetic ancestry suggests an origin in southeastern Europe. In addition, functional variants indicate that they also differed in visible characteristics. This example of female-biased migration indicates that complex demographic processes during the Early Medieval period may have contributed in an unexpected way to shape the modern European genetic landscape. Examination of the panel of functional loci also revealed that many alleles associated with recent positive selection were already at modern-like frequencies in European populations ∼1,500 years ago.

The admixture plot is key. They have enough markers that intercontinental genetic differences should be discernible. The male and female symbols should be familiar to you, but they also classified the samples by the cranial deformation (a practice associated with the arrival of the Huns to Europe). Blue ~ no deformation, green ~ intermediate, and red ~ deformation.

You can see that the individuals with cranial deformation, who are females, are genetically very distinct from everyone else. And, in particular, the males who exhibit no deformation are pretty homogeneous. Both PCA and admixture suggest that the males resemble typical North-Central Europeans. That is, Bavarians. The women on the PCA plot are shifted toward Southeastern Europe, where anthropologically the deformations were much more common.

The authors analyzed the features of these women and determined that they were likely darker than the males in eye color. This is entirely reasonable in light of their more Southern European genetic character.

There are a few other random samples too. In the admixture plot, FN_2 is a Roman soldier from ~300 AD from the Munich area. About two centuries before the Bavarian samples. The authors note it is curious this individual seems to exhibit Spanish ancestry (IBS being the Spanish samples). And yet this ancestry did not impact the region. Anyone who reads a history of the Roman Empire and its fall and regression knows that the area of southern Germany, Austria, and Hungary south into the Balkans became highly barbarized. It seems likely that many Roman peasants died or fled back to the safety of the empire.

PR_10 is a Sarmatian from the southern Urals. The individual has more “Finnish” ancestry, but that’s not atypical for Russian samples. The South Asian ancestry is something I’d dismiss normally, but I think this might be shared Yamnaya heritage.

Finally, VIM_2, like AED_1108 (a Bavarian female with cranial deformation), has East Asian ancestry. This individual was sampled in Serbia, dates to the 6th century, and is presumably a Gepid, a relatively obscure German tribe.

The presence of East Asian ancestry in these individuals highlights the likely cosmopolitan character of the barbarian zone stretching from Hungary to Bulgaria. It should definitely increase our likelihood that the Huns spoke a Turkic language of some sort. By the time most Turkic peoples arrive on the scene in Western Eurasia, they’re highly admixed, but they invariably have some East Asian ancestry. I highly doubt that the Huns arrived in Europe with the Southern European ancestry, TSI (Tuscan). So that is probably admixture over the century and a half since they arrived that allows for this individual to be predominantly TSI (though the individual may also have been a later Oghuz migrant). The ancestry of the Huns should have been more like a mix of East Asian and Sarmatia. The latter sorts were the first “West Eurasians” they’d run acros unless they had originally come from further south in the Tarim basin.

In the decades before the Huns turned West, they harried the East Roman Empire, pushed its limes back toward the sea, and extorted tribue out of it. After the collapse of Attila’s Empire, they seem to have retreated back to the territories to the east where they could be self-supporting, as opposed to extorting protection money out of states more powerful than them. Because the Huns become less of a problem for the Roman Empire, we don’t hear much about them by the late 5th century. And yet that does not mean they disappeared. The human and biological ecology of this region seems to have been amenable to the intrusion of Eurasian nomads, by the end of the 6th century the Avar confederacy was dominant in the interior Balkans and toward southeastern Germany.

Though this paper is not exactly revolutionary, it confirms that individuals from a post-Hunnic cultural configuration are mostly indigenous, that some evidence of East Asian ancestry persist, it shows that many of the arguments about Late Antiquity as to the ethnological character of peoples will be resolved. Unlike prehistory, where we have no written records, this period has clear and distinct cultures which we have a grasp of. The empty spots on the map are smaller.

* Some captured Sarmatians were settled in Britain on the frontier looking north. There are conjectures that Sarmatian motifs may have influenced Arthurian legends.

7 thoughts on “The barbarian invasions, illuminated by genetics

  1. I appreciate your posting this study. I’ve been thinking of the possibility the Anglo-Saxons were partly descended from the Huns, as was claimed by Bede:

    http://www.caitlingreen.org/2015/07/were-there-huns-in-anglo-saxon-england.html

    The study you posted does look at Anglo-Saxons, finding that they have a mostly northwestern European background, with some individuals showing Scandinavian ancestry. So it does not appear there is any evidence of East Asian ancestry in them. Still, there is strong evidence the Anglo-Saxons were influenced culturally by the Huns, which for example this study looks at:

    https://www.academia.edu/26820839/_Hawks_Horses_and_Huns_The_Impact_of_Peoples_of_the_Steppe_on_the_Folk_Cultures_of_Northern_Europe._Western_Folklore_75_2016_133-64

    It’s always good to get more data. I find your website very helpful, and though I lean left I do think you make good points on things like the existence of Anglo-Saxon values and migrationism vs. acculturationism.

  2. I recall that the book “Empires of the Silk Road”, which Razib has recommended here before, tentatively identifies the Huns with the Xiongnu of the ancient Chinese world. I never got the impression that there was anything to link them other than their nomadic origins and a possible similarity of the name.

  3. Maenchen-Helfen is undoubtedly the wittiest of the modern historians of the Huns and the barbs he hurled at E.A Thompson and others he found wanting seemed dipped in acid.

  4. * Some captured Sarmatians were settled in Britain on the frontier looking north. There are conjectures that Sarmatian motifs may have influenced Arthurian legends.

    Those conjectures are quite romantic, but I think they are HIGHLY unlikely. It’s been a long while since I looked into this, but as I recall, a few thousand Iazyges were sent to Britain. The one mythology of theirs – the sword in the lake – was supposedly the origin of the Arthurian Excalibur (along with mounted warriors = knights), but the problem with that is the latter is a later addition to the Arthur myth that came about with the rise of chivalry in the West.

    The study you posted does look at Anglo-Saxons, finding that they have a mostly northwestern European background, with some individuals showing Scandinavian ancestry. So it does not appear there is any evidence of East Asian ancestry in them. Still, there is strong evidence the Anglo-Saxons were influenced culturally by the Huns

    Sarmatian or Hunnic influence on the Saxons, if any, must be very distant. That’s IF ANY.

    Sarmatians were probably mostly Iranic. Huns might have had an elite superstrate that was East Asian (Turko-Mongol), but was probably a mixture of mostly Iranic (e.g. Alans) and Germanic peoples (e.g. Goths). So even if (again) there were any Sarmatian or Hunnic genetic footprint on Britain, it was extremely small and even that miniscule amount was only fractionally East Asian.

    By the way, even if it’s true that a few thousand Iazyges were left in Britain, when factoring for death from combat and illness, repatriation to the continent during emergencies, and a whole host of other factors that prevented them from settling down with local women, the chance that enough survived to leave genetic footprint is very small, I think.

  5. By the way, thank you, Mr. Khan, for this article. It’s a very fascinating one on a topic that is contentious among Late Antiquity historians (if somewhat arcane).

    It is interesting that the Hunnic elite was described very much as Mongols were later on. Whereas the Iranic Alans were described in Roman records as a tall, handsome race, Huns (and later Mongols) were described as ugly and very different from European and Iranic peoples… rather like Orcs riding wolves in Tolkien (Central Asian “ponies” look small and bushy and are often described as ponies even though they are horses), what with their yak-tail banners.

    On the other hand, Huns seemed to have practiced cranial deformation, something the Hsiung-Nu and Mongols did not, nor were the Huns described as having long ponytails like other East Asian nomads.

    In any case, this is quite the mystery, and I hope, in the future, more genetic data will illuminate the origin of these people, who have long been described as the genesis of the massive Germanic Völkerwanderung that eventually destroyed Rome and deeply affected the course of history.

  6. “Those conjectures are quite romantic, but I think they are HIGHLY unlikely. It’s been a long while since I looked into this, but as I recall, a few thousand Iazyges were sent to Britain. The one mythology of theirs – the sword in the lake – was supposedly the origin of the Arthurian Excalibur (along with mounted warriors = knights), but the problem with that is the latter is a later addition to the Arthur myth that came about with the rise of chivalry in the West.”

    True, but the kindred Alans were settled in great numbers in Armorica in the 5th century, and of course Armorica was also culturally, religiously, politically, and ethnically well connected to Britain at the time. St. Germanus Auxerre, who supposedly traveled to Britain, also encountered an Alan king in Armorica. It is probably not an coincidence that numerous Breton noblemen later bore the personal name Alan. Bernard Bachrach quite explicitly makes the connection between medieval chivalry and the Alans in his monograph, “The Origins of Armorican Chivalry”, which he expanded on in A History of the Alans in the West.

    I have no idea if Arthurian legend was actually influenced by Iranian steppe themes, but if it was, the Alans seem to be the obvious vector.

  7. Just a quick comment on the supposed Sarmatian origin of the sword in lake story: I have read of similar legends from next door in Ireland so it quite more likely was an import from there or a similar native Brythonic one as magical swords were known and lakes were often considered sacred where offerings were made as when Arthur has the sword thrown back in.

    And there’s also this writer’s interpretation:
    http://www.facesofarthur.org.uk/articles/guestdan15.htm
    http://www.facesofarthur.org.uk/articles/guestdan11.htm

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