Until now, the only accounts of the Xiongnu came from their enemies. Chinese records from 2200 years ago describe how these fierce mounted archers from the wide-open steppes of today’s Mongolia clashed with armies in what is now northwestern China. Their onslaughts spurred the Chinese to build what would become known as the Great Wall of China on their northern border, as protection against the mounted nomads. They also started to raise cavalry armies of their own.


In the future, researchers hope the genomes will help reveal how the mysterious nomad empire worked. The Xiongnu are “doing the things that empires do—forcing or enticing people to move,” says University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, archaeologist Bryan Miller. “Are people sent out to rule, or are local elites allowed to continue?” he asks. “Only genetics could answer that.”