Nomads, cosmopolitan predators, and peasants, xenophobic producers

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:

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