In the 560s AD, the Avars established an empire that lasted more than 200 years, centered in the Carpathian Basin. Despite numerous scholarly debates, their initial homeland and origin are unclear.
They are known mainly from the historical sources of their enemies, the Byzantines, who wondered about the origin of the fearsome Avar warriors after their sudden appearance in Europe.
Did they come from the Rouran Empire in the Mongolian steppe (which had just been destroyed by the Turks), or were the Turks to be believed, who were strongly contending for such a prestigious legacy?
Historians have wondered whether it was a well-organized migratory group or a mixed band of fugitives. Archaeological research has pointed to many parallels between the Carpathian Basin and Eurasian nomadic artifacts (weapons, vessels, horse harnesses), for example a gold pectoral in the shape of a lunula used as a symbol of power.
We also know that the Avars introduced the stirrup into Europe. However, so far we have not been able to trace its origin to the vast Eurasian steppes.
In this study, a multidisciplinary team – including researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, ELTE University and the Institute of Archaeogenomics in Budapest, Harvard Medical School in Boston, the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton – analyzed 66 individuals from the Carpathian Basin.
The study included the eight richest Avar tombs ever discovered, brimming with gold objects, as well as other individuals from the region prior to and during the Avar period. We addressed a question that has been a mystery for more than 1,400 years: who were the Avar elites, mysterious founders of an empire that nearly crushed Constantinople and for more than 200 years ruled the lands of present-day Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Austria, Croatia and Serbia,” explains Johannes Krause, lead author of the study.
The fastest long-distance migration in human history
The Avars left no written records about their history and these first genome data provide solid clues about their origins. Historical contextualization of the archaeogenetic results allowed us to narrow down the timing of the proposed Avar migration. They traveled more than 5,000 kilometers in a few years, from Mongolia to the Caucasus, and after ten more years settled in what is now Hungary. This is the fastest long-distance migration in human history that we can reconstruct so far, explains Choongwon Jeong, co-author of the study.
Guido Gnecchi-Ruscone, lead author of the study, adds: In addition to their clear affinity with Northeast Asia and their probable origin due to the fall of the Rouran Empire, we also see that the elites of the 7th century Avar period show 20 to 30 percent additional non-local ancestry, probably associated with the North Caucasus and the West Asian steppe, which could suggest further migration from the steppe after their arrival in the 6th century.
East Asian ancestry is found in individuals from several sites in the central settlement area between the Danube and Tisza rivers in present-day central Hungary. However, outside this main region we find great variability in the levels of admixture among individuals, especially at the Kölked site in southern Hungary. This suggests the existence of an Avar immigrant elite that ruled a diverse population with the help of a heterogeneous local elite.
These exciting results demonstrate the great potential of the unprecedented collaboration between geneticists, archaeologists, historians and anthropologists for the investigation of the migration period in the first millennium CE.