(ORDO NEWS) — The Avars, the mysterious mounted warriors who helped hasten the end of the Roman Empire, dominated the plains between Vienna and Belgrade, Serbia for more than two centuries.
Then they disappeared without a trace. Since then, scientists have been looking for their origin. Now archaeological and genetic evidence shows that the Avars were migrants from Mongolia, and their migration was up to this point the fastest long-distance movement in human history.
The Avars had no written records. Burial grounds and historical evidence suggest that shortly after their arrival in Europe around 1500 years ago, they dominated the plains of present-day Hungary.
They buried their elite in massive mounds surrounded by weapons and beautifully decorated with gold and silver vessels. They were often buried with horses and riding equipment. (The earliest stirrups in Europe were found in Avar graves).
It was these complex burials that provided the key to unraveling the origin of the Avars. An international team of researchers has extracted ancient DNA from the skeletons of dozens of high-profile men and women buried in 27 locations across what is now Hungary.
By comparing this DNA with existing ancient DNA data, the team found that the closest matches came from sixth-century graves in present-day Mongolia, Cell reports today.
“From a genetic point of view, the elite Avars have a very, very oriental profile,” says Chongwon Chong, co-author of the work and a geneticist at Seoul National University.
The first Avar burials are virtually identical to those buried a few decades earlier in eastern Mongolia, suggesting that the first Avars in Europe probably traveled nearly 7,000 kilometers themselves.
They probably used their nomadic lifestyle, trade networks that stretched across the endless steppe, and horsemanship to quickly move through the grasslands of Eurasia. “The DNA is so close that they should be within the same generation, or even less,” Chung says.
These genetic data confirm two historical versions of the origin of the Avars. One sixth-century Chinese source describes an enigmatic steppe people called the Rouran, one of the many mounted groups of nomads who came from the Mongolian steppes to attack the northern frontiers. The Ruran Empire was reportedly defeated by rival nomads in 552 BC.
On another continent, just 15 years later, diplomats from Byzantium, the eastern remnant of the once mighty Roman Empire, announced the arrival of a new group from the east on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
The newcomers called themselves Avars and claimed to be related to a distant people known as the Rurans. But was their origin story true, or just bragging?
New genetic data seem to provide an answer to this question, says Walter Pohl, a historian at the University of Vienna. “We have a very clear indication that they must have come from the core of the Ruran empire. They were neighbors of the Chinese.”
After their arrival on the fringes of the Roman Empire, the Avars advanced into central Europe, conquering the plains along the Danube between modern Vienna and Belgrade, and even laid siege to Constantinople, now Istanbul, in 623 BC.
In the late 700s, they were finally defeated by Charlemagne, a king whose largest and best army destroyed their capital and eventually united most of Europe for the first time in centuries.
To learn more about the structure of Avar society, the researchers compared Avar graves from different time periods, places, and social strata. Both the graves and their genes suggest that those at the top of Avar society were a tight-knit group.
DNA from elite burials from the early 700s still shows East Asian characteristics, suggesting that the elite did not mix with the local European population. Meanwhile, the less ornate burials further from the center of the kingdom show a more mixed origin.
“The non-elite probably intermingled with the local population,” says Guido Gnecki-Ruskone, a population geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, “but it seems that the elite remained homogeneous.”
The genetic evidence also suggests that the group that moved from Mongolia to Hungary was much larger than the researchers thought. If the invaders were just a tiny group of warriors and their wives, their offspring 2 centuries later would show strong genetic signals of inbreeding.
But there are no such signals, despite the fact that most of the remains studied in elite graves have pronounced East Asian features. According to Paul, this suggests that the population was in the tens of thousands, or that new migrants from their homeland continued to join the Avars in Europe for decades after their initial conquests.
Archaeologists say this interdisciplinary study is a welcome departure from research that narrowly looks at genetic data to make sweeping claims about past migrations.
“They’re trying to look at more subtle social issues and time scales, and that’s the direction we need to go,” says Brian Miller, an archaeologist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “This is exactly what a paper on genomics should be like.”
What happened after the defeat of the Avars at the hands of Charlemagne remains unclear. According to Gnecki-Ruskone, their genetic handwriting soon almost disappeared in the regions where they once ruled.
“Something happened, but we don’t know what it is – have they moved? Are they just repressed by the local population? That’s one of the things we want to find out.”
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