The powerful women who helped expand the first nomadic empire in Asia

The attackers came from the north, horse archers who fired their arrows with expert precision.

They ruined and burned the crops, which the Han Chinese villagers – who lived on the northern borders of China around 200 BC – carefully tended.

The Han called the invaders “Xiongnu,” meaning “fierce slave,” a pejorative term meant to emphasize the “inferiority” of the barbarians.

In reality, however, the Xiongnu surpassed their Chinese neighbors in military experience and political organization.

Composed of different ethnic tribes, the Xiongnu were the world’s first nomadic empire, well-organized and formidable enough to create so many problems for the Han that they eventually resolved to build the Great Wall of China.

And, even more interesting, is that behind the fierce archers, it was the powerful Xiongnu women who helped hold the empire together.

Data hidden in the ground

Reconstructing the curious history of the Xiongnu has been a challenge, because, despite their high organization and military prowess, the nation never developed a written language.

“Therefore most of the information we have comes from their cemeteries and their enemies,” says Christina Warinner, leader of a research group in the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute.

And the cemeteries tell an interesting story, as a recent study showed that a surprisingly high number of elite Xiongnu burials contain female remains.

It is a hypothesis that has been considered for a long time.

However, it was not until genetic sequencing techniques advanced a few years ago that Warinner’s team was able to confirm the female gender of several burial sites with absolute certainty.

“Our genetic findings demonstrate that elite princesses played important roles in Xiongnu society, politically and economically,” says Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan, who heads the Research Center of the National Museum of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar, and is coordinator of the Max Institute project. Planck of Geoanthropology in Germany

Change of perspective

These findings changed scientists’ perspective on how the Xiongnu expanded their territory and kept their nomadic empire together.

We may traditionally think of empires as stationary entities that built cities, palaces, and courts to maintain their rule, but some nomadic kingdoms were incredibly robust.

The Xiongnu Empire, predating the famous empire of Genghis Khan by about 1,000 years, lasted from the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD and occupied the territory of present-day Mongolia with its northern borders extending to Lake Baikal in Russia. from today.

In addition to being skilled warriors, the Xiongnu were also avid suppliers of luxury goods acquired from across Eurasia via the ancient Silk Road trade routes, including Chinese silks, Roman crystals, and Egyptian beads.

And women had relevant positions.

In some way, they were the virtual glue – or perhaps the silk threads – that held together the itinerant kingdom, which did not have permanent cities or physical facilities to affirm its presence.

“Xiongnu women held great imperial power along the frontier, frequently holding exclusive noble ranks, maintaining traditions, and participating in both steppe power politics and Silk Road networks,” explains Bryan Miller, professor of archeology at the University of Michigan, in the United States, and member of Max Planck’s group.

“They were very respected.”

luxury objects

At the elite Takhiltyn Khotgor cemetery, located in Western Mongolia’s Khov province, researchers found monumental tombs clearly built to honor women.

In their coffins decorated with imperial Xiongnu symbols of the sun and moon, each woman was surrounded by a crowd of commoner men placed in simple tombs.

One tomb contained six horses and a chariot.

At the nearby Shombuuzyn Belchir cemetery, women similarly occupied the richest tombs, and were accompanied by luxuries from their life on Earth, including Chinese mirrors, silk clothing, wooden wheelbarrows, faience beads. and animal offerings.

The tombs look like inverted pyramids with rectangular bases above the ground (archaeologists call them terraces), which narrow as they rise above the ground.

“When the excavations go up to 20 meters into the ground,” explains Ursula Brosseder, an archaeologist specializing in prehistory at the Libniz Center for Archeology in Germany (who was not part of Max Planck’s study).

Archaeologists also found ornamental belts in Xiongnu burials, another type of artifact that denotes social status.

Decorated with large plaques and adorned with beads and stone earrings, they look like “Christmas trees with things hanging below the waist,” Brosseder notes.

“A belt is a very important symbol of status and rank, but it typically belongs to the male sphere and not the female sphere,” he explains.

“What is very interesting is that only the Xiongnu in this period gave the belts to women and not so much to men.”

dangerous rivals

The ability to ride horses and shoot bows was one of the main skills of the Xiongnu.

“Some people call horses ships of the earth, because ships and horses are the fastest way to travel that existed before industrialization,” Warinner explains.

The Xiongnu domesticated horses, which are native to the steppe, and also learned to shoot bows while riding, so they were very dangerous, both up close and from afar.

The Han Chinese were no match for them.

“Even when they built the Great Wall, it never worked,” says the expert. “The Xiongnu just rode around it.”

Some women’s graves contained equestrian equipment, but researchers cannot say for sure whether women fought alongside men or not. “I think we should not exclude that there were also women warriors,” says Brosseder.

“This is not to say that all women participated in the army,” she adds, “but they could definitely ride horses and shoot with bows, just for the purpose of having a better life in the steppe.”

marriage alliances

Genetic research helped Max Planck’s team discover another interesting fact: the women buried on the empire’s borders near China were genetically very different from the surrounding Xiongnu population.

Instead, they were closely related to a man believed to be one of the Xiongnu kings, whose tomb was excavated in central Mongolia in 2013.

The team believes that the king married his female relatives to the border clans to strengthen political alliances and maintain the strength of the empire.

“We thought the king was sending his daughters to control the rural parts of the empire politically and economically,” Bayarsaikhan notes.

There they acted as emissaries and maintained contacts with the commercial networks of the Silk Road. “It was an important practice,” he says, adding that these Xiongnu traditions laid the foundation for the success of the future Mongol empire.

When building his own nomadic empire, Genghis Khan followed the “marriage rules” of the Xiongnu: the Mongol queens, who ruled a millennium later, were known for their political powers, Bayarsaikhan says.

Were the Xiongnu the only ones to embrace different gender rules?

Not necessarily. On the contrary, the findings show that “we should not extend the Victorian mentality about women’s roles in all cultures throughout history,” explains Miller, who is working on a book about the Xiongnu and their culture.

“I hope people realize that women did, in fact, have a lot of power in premodern societies,” she says.

This is adapted from an article published in BBC Travel. Click to read the original version.

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BBC-NEWS-SRC:, IMPORTING DATE: 2024-01-07 10:45:04

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