Genetic study links Avars to fall of Rouran Khaganate

In the year 555 AD, the Rouran Khaganate, based in northeast Asia, was defeated and dispersed by a Turkish invasion. Around 567-8, a new nomadic group known as the Avars came to Eastern Europe. Now, a new genetic study has linked these two groups.

The study, published in the journal Cell, analyzed 66 individuals from the Carpathian Basin. The study included the eight richest Avar tombs ever discovered, overflowing with gold artefacts, as well as other individuals from the area before and during the Avar era. “We are tackling a question that has been a mystery for over 1,400 years: who were the Avaricious elites, mysterious founders of an empire that nearly crushed Constantinople and ruled for over 200 years over the lands of Hungary, Romania, today’s Slovakia? Austria, Croatia and Serbia?”, explains Johannes Krause, lead author of the study.

The Rouran Khaganate was established around the year 330 as a tribal confederation that ruled over a large swath of land centered around present-day Mongolia. They frequently attacked and fought with the Chinese states. However, in the 550s the Rouran came into conflict with the Turkic Khaganate and in 555 they were completely defeated. Historians have speculated that some of the Rouran crossed the Eurasian steppe and settled in southeastern Europe. It was here that the Avars established an empire that lasted until the beginning of the 9th century.

Archaeological research has revealed many parallels between the Carpathian Basin and Eurasian nomadic artefacts (weapons, vessels, horse harnesses), for example a lunula-shaped golden breastplate used as a symbol of power. It is also known that the Avars introduced the stirrup to Europe. Yet, so far, we have not been able to trace their origin to the vast Eurasian steppes.

Derecske-Bikás-dűlő, Grave 1341/1503 (Déri Museum, Debrecen). © Szilvia Döbröntey-David

In this new study, a multidisciplinary team – including researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, ELTE University and the Institute of Archaeogenomics in Budapest, Harvard Medical School in Boston, the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton – found strong evidence of genetic links between people from the Rouran Khaganate and the Avars.

Guido Gnecchi-Ruscone, the lead author of the study, comments that, “Besides their obvious affinity with Northeast Asia and their probable origin due to the fall of the Rouran Empire, we also see that the elites from the 7th century Avar period show 20–30% additional non-local ancestry, probably associated with the North Caucasus and West Asian Steppe, which may suggest further migration from the Steppe after their arrival in the 6th century .

East Asian ancestry is found in individuals from several sites in the central settlement area between the Danube and Tisza rivers in modern central Hungary. However, outside the primary settlement region, they found great variability in interindividual levels of mixing, especially in the southern Hungarian site of Kölked. This suggests an immigrant Avar elite ruling a diverse population with the help of a heterogeneous local elite.

One of the most interesting aspects of the research is that it shows how a people were able to move great distances in the Middle Ages. “The historical contextualization of the archaeogenetic findings allowed us to pinpoint the timing of the proposed Avar migration,” says Choongwon Jeong, co-lead author of the study. “They traveled more than 5000 kilometers in a few years from Mongolia to the Caucasus, and after ten more years settled in what is now Hungary. This is the fastest long-distance migration in l history of mankind that we can reconstruct up to the present.

The article, “Ancient genomes reveal the origin and rapid trans-Eurasian migration of 7th-century Avar elites”, by Guido Alberto Gnecchi-Ruscone, Anna Szécsényi-Nagy, István Koncz, Zuzana Hofmanová, Choongwon Jeong, Johannes Krause et al., is published in Cell. Click here to read this.

Top image: Reconstruction of a horseman in armor from the Avar period from the 1341/1503 tomb at the Derecske-Bikás-dűlő site (Déri Museum, Debrecen). © Ilona C. Baiser

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