UMMAA curators Bryan Miller and Alicia Ventresca Miller and an international team of colleagues have published groundbreaking research on the Xiongnu empire, a nomadic people who lived in what is now Mongolia from around 200 BC to AD 100.

Using the genomes of people buried in two cemeteries—one for aristocratic elites and one for local elites—the researchers found extremely high levels of genetic diversity.

From the study, published in Science Advances on Friday, April 14:

“High genetic diversity is reflected within individual tomb complexes and burial clusters and even extended family groups. Thus, we find that the same sociopolitical processes that produced a genetically diverse empire on a vast scale also operated at the smallest scale, creating highly diverse local communities over the span of only a few generations. There are also discernable genetic patterns with respect to social and political status at [the two cemeteries], where individuals of the lowest status (based on grave form and mortuary remains) have the highest degree of genetic heterogeneity. In contrast, higher-status individuals are less genetically diverse and have high levels of eastern Eurasian ancestry. This further suggests the existence of an aristocracy in the Xiongnu empire, that elite status and power was concentrated within specific subsets of the broader population.”

Another noteworthy finding was that the largest graves and those with the most offerings and furnishings—at both the “royal” cemetery and the local elite cemetery—were women.

Read the Science Advances article here and the CNN article here.

This research has also appeared in a number of other publications. Read about it in Nature here, and in the London Times here.

Above image: Golden icons of the sun and moon, symbols of the Xiongnu, decorated a woman's coffin found in Elite Tomb 64 at the Takhiltyn Khotgor site. The largest graves, and those with the most offerings and furnishings, were those of women.

The local elite cemetery of Shombuuzyn Belchir (SBB).

The aristocratic elite cemetery of Takhiltyn Khotgor (TAK).