Health/Sci-TechLifestyleVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 34

How Asia’s first nomadic empire broke the rules of imperial expansion

In an age that spawned the ancient Roman and Egyptian empires, Mongolia’s Xiongnu Empire broke the rules of imperial expansion.

Long before the Mongol Empire arose, Asia’s first nomadic empire, horse-riding Xiongnu people, conquered ethnic groups across the continent’s northeastern and central expanses. A common political system headed by Xiongnu imperial rulers formed about 209 B.C. and lasted for roughly 300 years. Unlike in Rome or Egypt, mobile groups of Xiongnu animal herders accomplished this feat without building cities, forming central bureaucracies, devising a writing system or mobilizing masses of farmers to produce food.

Today, remnants of Xiongnu culture largely consist of more than 7,000 tombs, some heavily looted and many yet to be excavated, in Mongolia and nearby parts of China and Russia. In the last decade, geneticists and archaeologists have ramped up efforts to study these sites and ancient records to decipher the Xiongnu Empire’s political organization and technological achievements.

A few ancient Chinese chronicles include descriptions of the Xiongnu political system. These accounts portray the Xiongnu as predatory raiders who belonged to a “simple” confederation of herding groups run by a few nomadic alpha males. Even so, warfare with mounted Xiongnu warriors equipped with bows, arrows and metal weapons had inspired Imperial Chinese leaders to construct their Great Wall.

Some researchers have argued that Xiongnu people formed a lesser, “shadow empire” alongside Imperial China. But that view is giving way to a picture of the Xiongnu Empire as a different, not lesser, type of ancient state, says Yale University archaeologist William Honeychurch. In this view, nomadic Xiongnu elites developed a flexible system of political power that connected mobile groups with different genetic and cultural ancestries spread across extensive grasslands and forests. “Elite lineages were not only an important part of a multiethnic Xiongnu state, but members of these lineages were sent to peripheral areas as part of state integration,” Honeychurch says. One new study, for example, indicates that Xiongnu women from elite lineages in central Mongolia served as “princess” emissaries to the empire’s frontier, assuming political power in distant territories populated by various ethnic groups.

“This must have been an empire organized around moving populations,” says archaeologist Bryan Miller of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Xiongnu elites were savvy politicians who delegated power to keep the empire together.”