Population Dynamics And the Rise of Empires in Inner Asia

Related Articles

Related Articles

From the late Bronze Age until the Middle Ages, the eastern Eurasian Steppe was home to a series of organized and highly influential nomadic empires.

The Xiongnu (209 BCE – 98 CE) and Mongol (916-1125 CE) empires that bookend this period had especially large impacts on the demographics and geopolitics of Eurasia, but due to a lack of large-scale genetic studies, the origins, interactions, and relationships of the people who formed these states remains largely unknown.

To understand the population dynamics that gave rise to the Steppe’s historic empires, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH), the National University of Mongolia, and partner institutions in Mongolia, Russia, Korea and the United States generated and analyzed genome-wide data for 214 individuals from 85 Mongolian and 3 Russian sites. Spanning the period of 4600 BCE to 1400 CE, it is among the largest studies of ancient Eastern and Inner Asian genomes to date.

 

During the mid-Holocene, the eastern Eurasian Steppe was populated by hunter-gatherers of Ancient Northeast Asian (ANA) and Ancient Northern Eurasian (ANE) ancestry, but around 3000 BCE, dairy pastoralism was introduced through the expansion of the Afanasievo culture of the Altai mountains, whose origins can be traced to the Yamnaya steppe herders of the Black Sea region more than 3,000 km to the west. Although these migrants left little genetic impact, they had an outsized cultural effect and by the Mid- to Late Bronze Age, dairy pastoralism was practiced by populations throughout the Eastern Steppe.

In the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, populations in west, north and south-central Mongolia formed three distinct, geographically structured gene pools. These populations remained discrete for more than a millennium, until increased mobility, likely facilitated by the rise of horseback riding, began to break down this structure. The formation of the Xiongnu in north-central Mongolia, the first nomadic empire in Asia, is contemporaneous with this population mixture and with the influx of new gene pools originating from across Eurasia, from the Black Sea to China.

“Rather than a simple genetic turnover or replacement, the rise of the Xiongnu is linked to the sudden mixture of distinct populations that had been genetically separated for millennia. As a result, the Xiongnu of Mongolia show a spectacular level of genetic diversity that reflects much of Eurasia,” says Dr. Choongwon Jeong, lead author of the study and a professor of Biological Sciences at Seoul National University.

A thousand years later, individuals from the Mongol Empire, one of largest contiguous empires in history, showed a marked increase in Eastern Eurasian ancestry compared to individuals from the earlier Xiongnu, Turkic and Uyghur periods, accompanied by a near complete loss of the ancient ANE ancestry that had been present since before the Xiongnu Empire. By the end of the Mongol Empire, the genetic makeup of the Eastern Steppe had changed dramatically, ultimately stabilizing into the genetic profile observed among present-day Mongolians.

“Our study of ancient Mongolia reveals not only early genetic contributions from populations on the Western Steppe, but also a marked genetic shift towards eastern Eurasian ancestry during the Mongol Empire. The region has a remarkably dynamic genetic history, and ancient DNA is beginning to reveal the complexity of population events that have shaped the Eurasian Steppe,” says Ke Wang, co-first author of the study and a PhD student at the MPI-SHH.

In addition to the impacts of genetic events on political structures, the researchers also investigated the relationship between genetics and subsistence strategies. Despite more than 5,000 years of dairy pastoralism in the region and the continued importance of dairy in the average Mongolian diet today, researchers found no evidence for the selection of lactase persistence, a genetic trait that allows lactose digestion.

“The absence of lactase persistence in Mongolian populations both today and in the past challenges current medical models of lactose intolerance, and suggests a much more complicated prehistory of dairying. We are now turning to the gut microbiome to understand how populations adapt to dairy-based diets,” says Dr. Christina Warinner, senior author of the study, a professor of Anthropology at Harvard University and a research group leader at the MPI-SHH.

“Reconstructing a 6,000-year genetic history of Mongolia has had a transformative effect on our understanding of the archaeology of the region. While answering some long-standing questions, it has also generated new questions and revealed several surprises. We hope that this research will energize future work on the rich and complex relationships between ancestry, culture, technology, and politics in the rise of Asia’s nomadic empires,” adds Dr. Erdene Myagmar, co-senior author of the study and professor of Anthropology and Archaeology at the National University of Mongolia.

MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE FOR THE SCIENCE OF HUMAN HISTORY

Header Image Credit : William Taylor

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic

LATEST NEWS

Tenochtitlan – The Aztec Capital

Tenochtitlan was the capital of the Aztec civilisation, situated on a raised islet in the western side of the shallow Lake Texcoco, which is now the historic part of present-day Mexico City.

Archipelago in Ancient Doggerland Survived Storegga Tsunami 8,000-Years-Ago

Doggerland, dubbed “Britain’s Atlantis” is a submerged landmass beneath what is now the North Sea, that once connected Britain to continental Europe.

Cereal, Olive & Vine Pollen Reveal Market Integration in Ancient Greece

In the field of economics, the concept of a market economy is largely considered a modern phenomenon.

The Annulment of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon at Dunstable Priory

The Priory Church of St Peter (Dunstable Priory) is the remaining nave of a former Augustinian priory church and monastery, that today is part of the Archdeaconry of Bedford, located within the Diocese of St Albans in the town of Dunstable, England.

Teōtīhuacān – Birthplace of the Gods

Teōtīhuacān, named by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs, and loosely translated as "birthplace of the gods" is an ancient Mesoamerican city located in the Teotihuacan Valley of the Free and Sovereign State of Mexico, in present-day Mexico.

Chetro Ketl – The Great House

Chetro Ketl is an archaeological site, and the ancient ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan settlement, located in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico, United States of America.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings

The Gila Cliff Dwellings is an archaeological site, and ancient settlement constructed by the pueblos Mimbres branch of the Mogollon, located in southwest New Mexico of the United States of America.

Rare Cretaceous-Age Fossil Opens New Chapter in Story of Bird Evolution

A Cretaceous-age, crow-sized bird from Madagascar would have sliced its way through the air wielding a large, blade-like beak and offers important new insights on the evolution of face and beak shape in the Mesozoic forerunners of modern birds.

Popular stories

Teōtīhuacān – Birthplace of the Gods

Teōtīhuacān, named by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs, and loosely translated as "birthplace of the gods" is an ancient Mesoamerican city located in the Teotihuacan Valley of the Free and Sovereign State of Mexico, in present-day Mexico.

Legio IX Hispana – The Lost Roman Legion

One of the most debated mysteries from the Roman period involves the disappearance of the Legio IX Hispana, a legion of the Imperial Roman Army that supposedly vanished sometime after AD 120.

The Secret Hellfire Club and the Hellfire Caves

The Hellfire Club was an exclusive membership-based organisation for high-society rakes, that was first founded in London in 1718, by Philip, Duke of Wharton, and several of society's elites.

Port Royal – The Sodom of the New World

Port Royal, originally named Cagway was an English harbour town and base of operations for buccaneers and privateers (pirates) until the great earthquake of 1692.