Ten years ago when I read Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians, its thesis that the migrations and conquests of the post-Roman period were at least in part folk wanderings, where men, women, and children swarmed into the collapsing Empire en masse, was somewhat edgy. Today Heather’s model has to a large extent been validated. The recent paper on the Lombard migration, the discovery that the Lombards were indeed by and large genetically coherent as a transplanted German tribe in Pannonia and later northern Italy, confirms the older views which Heather attempted to resurrect. Additionally, the Lombards also seem to have been defined by a dominant group of elite male lineages.
Why is this even surprising? Because to a great extent, the ethnic and tribal character of the post-Roman power transfer between Late Antique elites and the newcomers was diminished and dismissed for decades. I can still remember the moment in 2010 when I was browsing books on Late Antiquity at Foyles in London and opened a page on a monograph devoted to the society of the Vandal kingdom in North Africa. The author explained that though the Vandals were defined by a particular set of cultural codes and mores, they were to a great extent an ad hoc group of mercenaries and refugees, whose ethnic identity emerged de novo on the post-Roman landscape.
In the next few years, we will probably get Vandal DNA from North Africa. I predict that they will be notably German (though with admixture, especially as time progresses). Additionally, I predict most of the males will be haplogroup R1b or I1. But the Vandal kingdom was actually one where there was a secondary group of barbarians: the Alans. It was Regnum Vandalorum et Alanorum. I predict that Alan males will be R1a. In particular, R1a1a-z93.
But this post is not about the post-Roman world. Rather, it’s about the Inner Asian forest steppe. The sea of grass, stretching from the Altai to the Carpathians. A new paper in Science adds more samples to the story of the Srubna, Cimmerians, Scythians, and Sarmatians. Ancient genomes suggest the eastern Pontic-Caspian steppe as the source of western Iron Age nomads. The abstract is weirdly nonspecific, though accurate:
For millennia, the Pontic-Caspian steppe was a connector between the Eurasian steppe and Europe. In this scene, multidirectional and sequential movements of different populations may have occurred, including those of the Eurasian steppe nomads. We sequenced 35 genomes (low to medium coverage) of Bronze Age individuals (Srubnaya-Alakulskaya) and Iron Age nomads (Cimmerians, Scythians, and Sarmatians) that represent four distinct cultural entities corresponding to the chronological sequence of cultural complexes in the region. Our results suggest that, despite genetic links among these peoples, no group can be considered a direct ancestor of the subsequent group. The nomadic populations were heterogeneous and carried genetic affinities with populations from several other regions including the Far East and the southern Urals. We found evidence of a stable shared genetic signature, making the eastern Pontic-Caspian steppe a likely source of western nomadic groups.
The German groups which invaded the Western Roman Empire were agropastoralists. That is, they were slash and burn farmers who raised livestock. Though they were mobile, they were not nomads of the open steppe. Man for man the Germans of Late Antiquity had more skills applicable to the military life than the Roman peasant. This explains in part their representation in the Roman armed forces in large numbers starting in the 3rd century. But the people of the steppe, pure nomads, were even more fearsome. Ask the Goths about the Huns.
Whole German tribes, like the Cimbri, might coordinate for a singular migration for new territory, but for the exclusive pastoralist, their whole existence was migration. Groups such as the Goths and Vandals might settle down, and become primary producers again, but pure pastoralists probably required some natural level of predation and extortion upon settled peoples to obtain a lifestyle beyond marginal subsistence. Which is to say that some of the characterizations of Late Antique barbarians as ad hoc configurations might apply more to steppe hordes.
There has been enough work on these populations over the past few years to admit that various groups have different genetic characteristics, indicative of a somewhat delimited breeding population. But, invariably there are outliers here and there, and indications of periodic reversals of migration and interactions with populations from other parts of Eurasia.
Earlier I noted that Heather seems to have been correct that the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire were events that involved the migration of women and children, as well as men. The steppe was probably a bit different. Here are the Y and mtDNA results for males from these data that are new to this paper:
|Culture||MtDNA Haplogroup||Y Haplogroup|
I’m assuming you aren’t surprised. These steppe tribes seem to be defined by extended paternal lineage networks. The Srubna people are R1a1a1, as is dominant in Eastern Europe today. But, an ancient Srubna male dating to 1800 BC was found to have the Asian variant of R1a1a1, found in South and Central Asia, not the one predominant among Slavic peoples.
Speaking of South Asians, there is some interesting discussion on this issue in the paper. I’ll quote a few sections:
The Bronze Age Srubnaya-Alakulskaya individuals from Kazburun 1/Muradym 8 presented genetic similarities to the previously published Srubnaya individuals. However, in f4 statistics, they shared more drift with representatives of the Andronovo and Afanasievo populations compared to the published Srubnaya individuals. Those apparently West Eurasian people lacked significant Siberian components (NEA and SEA) in ADMIXTURE analyses but carried traces of the SA component that could represent an earlier connection to ancient Bactria. The presence of an SA component (as well as finding of metals imported from Tien Shan Mountains in Muradym 8) could therefore reflect a connection to the complex networks of the nomadic transmigration patterns characteristic of seasonal steppe population movements….
There are two ways, not exclusive, that I can explain the “South Asian” component you find in some of the steppe individuals. First, the “South Asian” component is found in the Neolithic Iranian sample. And, you can see in another plot that the Scythians are enriched for West Asian ancestry in comparison to the Srubna. As noted above there was probably south to north migration of these Indo-European nomadic groups. So yes, just as with the East Asia ancestry which periodically appears, this is evidence of an “Inner Asian International.”
A second possibility though is that the South Asian ancestry is artifactual and that it’s just emerging in ADMIXTURE because of shared ancestry between the Srubna and South Asians because of gene flow from the steppe into South Asia (and since South Asians have “Iranian farmer” ancestry it also pops up in the Iranian Neolithic sample).
The Srubna flourished between the 18th and 12th centuries BC. According to Wikipedia:
Philological and linguistic evidence indicates that the bulk of the Rigveda Samhita was composed in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent, most likely between c. 1500 and 1200 BC.
Mitannia Indo-Aryan is attested in Syria in 1380 BC.
In the centuries around 1500 BC it seems quite possible that there was an “Indo-Aryan Inner Asian International”, just as in the first millennium AD there emerged a Turkic International, and for more than a century after 1200 AD there was a Mongol International. In the north, the Indo-Aryans were absorbed by Iranian and Uralic peoples. In West Asia they didn’t have a major cultural impact, aside from introducing chariots. It is in India by happenstance that Indo-Aryan linguistic culture and aspects of their folk memory are preserved to this day.
This isn’t that amazing. Half of the speakers of Turkic langauges are ethnic Turks, who live in Turkey. Anatolia genetically isn’t really very East Asian, though there is some of that. But the cultural heritage of the ancient Turks remains stronger there than in areas anciently inhabited by Turks, such as western Mongolia (where the people are genetically more like the original Turks were in the first millennium AD).
What’s the upshot here? I think that there is a spectrum of passivity and xenophobia in the modes of production outlined above. Sedentary peasant peoples are the most conservative and xenophobic. They are also the least warlike because their skill set is the least transferable to warfare. They specialize in production, not extortion.
Pure nomads are the least xenophobic and most open to various forms of cultural innovation. The Mongol horde rapidly expanded in the decades of Genghis Khan’s rule through assimilation of various Turkic and Tungusic peoples. Though Genghis Khan put his sons by his first wife Borte in all the major positions, competent individuals outside of his own family line were elevated to power and authority. We have enough evidence now that these social dynamics are also strongly driven by the reality of migrating males, who marry a variety of conquered peoples.
Though Mongols were religiously tolerant and relatively accepting of ethnic diversity so long as subordinate peoples did not rebel, they were fundamentally an extortive order where organized mass violence was always the weapon of first resort. They were almost certainly not atypical, but continuing an Inner Asian tradition which probably dates to the Bronze Age, and matured 1,000 years later with groups like the Scythians.
Agropastoralists, such as the people of Nothern Europe during antiquity, were probably somewhere in between peasants and nomads. Not as xenophobic as peasants, but definitely more inward looking than the steppe nomads.