The shadow of the Hun

Short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with grey; and he had a flat nose and tanned skin, showing evidence of his origin.

– Jordanes, describing Atilla the Hun

When I was younger (think age 10) I had a period when I read a lot of medieval and “Dark Age” history. Reading about the Huns was pretty scary…they were like the Mongols, but even more, cloaked in legend. I always remember the debates about the physical descriptions of the Huns. On the one hand, it could be plausibly asserted that their descriptions indicated an Asiatic people. But another argument was that the ancient writers were utilizing common tropes to describe barbaric peoples.

Today with DNA we can answer some of these questions with finality. Y-chromosome haplogroups from Hun, Avar and conquering Hungarian period nomadic people of the Carpathian Basin:

Hun, Avar and conquering Hungarian nomadic groups arrived into the Carpathian Basin from the Eurasian Steppes and significantly influenced its political and ethnical landscape. In order to shed light on the genetic affinity of above groups we have determined Y chromosomal haplogroups and autosomal loci, from 49 individuals, supposed to represent military leaders. Haplogroups from the Hun-age are consistent with Xiongnu ancestry of European Huns. Most of the Avar-age individuals carry east Eurasian Y haplogroups typical for modern north-eastern Siberian and Buryat populations and their autosomal loci indicate mostly unmixed Asian characteristics. In contrast the conquering Hungarians seem to be a recently assembled population incorporating pure European, Asian and admixed components.

I was curious about the Hun samples, and the autosomal results. There were only three Huns, but one of them carried haplogroup Q1a2. This is found at highest frequencies in Turkic and Siberian groups. The other individuals were R1b and R1a. R1a is common in Eastern Europe…but the particular variant this Hunnic male carried was of the Z93 branch comon in Central and South Asia, and in particular in places like the Altai.

As far as the autosomal results:

Samples from different archaological cultures and cemeteries showed a remarkable pattern of phenotypic distribution. All Hun and Avar age samples had inherently dark eye/hair colors, DK/701being the only exception (Table 2). Moreover 6/14 Avar age samples were characterized with >0,7 black hair; >0,99 brown eye….

Again, some historians have argued that the tropes that emerged to describe the Sarmatians and Scythians were recycled for the Huns. But we know what these groups looked like because we have ancient DNA from them: they were clearly West Eurasian people, with western populations heavily Europeanized. It is clear from these results that the Huns and Avars were physically reflective of their East Asian origin. The ancient authors describing them in exotic terms were describing reality, not a metaphor.

I look forward to discovering whether other “metaphors” of the descriptions of ancient peoples turn out to be literal and serious as well.

9 thoughts on “The shadow of the Hun

  1. I nearly always went with the assumption that most of the ancient accounts (Roman, at least) were as accurate as their authors could be given the limits of their times, and not mostly the products of racist tropes or fanciful imagination or whatever. That take always annoyed me, almost right up there with the belief that languages and culture only ever slowly diffused, peacefully, but never at the point of a conqueror’s spear.

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  2. That’s interesting, because I remember Pat Wyman’s Fall of Rome episode on the Huns saying that most of them were probably “Goths” and other groups ruled over by a set of Kings of mixed Hunnic-Other Group ancestry. The Hunnic ancestry must have been a much larger component of these groups than previously thought.

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  3. OT, but your latest short piece on Insitome on Europe’s Pleistocene past is wonderful. Very clear and informative. Thanks!

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  4. Isn’t it kind of sad that they used just two dozen “ancestry informative markers”… Even the writing skills appear very unprofessional. Apropos the recent discussion of “Reich having too much influence on the local researchers”, I just can’t help thinking how much better it would have been to have a major international lab take part in this study.

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  5. Dx, that’s fair (the use of MDS etc is very 1990s). also i didn’t talk about the autosomal ancestry cuz it seemed a little low quality. but i assume their functional SNPs are right.

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  6. Any comparison between these Huns and the Xiongnu…which is kinda another central mystery due to linguistic connections and the temporal connection. I am sympathetic to the explanation that steppe nomads all moved around and Hun, Avar, Xiongnu etc were more descriptive than ethnic (look at Tamerlane’s army).

    But if we can connect the Han Dynasty and Roman histories…well that is just plain cool.

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  7. Speaking of Mongols, do we have similar results from genomes of the Mongol hordes of Genghis? I assume there are some, considering they were relatively closer to our time

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  8. I don’t understand how anyone could argue that description of the Huns Avars and Hungarians were just carried down tropes. The description I remember are completely different sycthians are described as typical barbarians in being tall and blond or red haired like Germans and Celts. Short tan skinned and dark haired is not a typical description of a barbarian in classical antiquity.

    What was that idea based on?

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