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Diverse genetic origins of medieval steppe nomad conquerors

By Alexander S. Mikheyev, Lijun Qiu, Alexei Zarubin, Nikita Moshkov, Yuri Orlov, Duane R. Chartier, Igor V. Kornienko, Tatyana G. Faleeva, Vladimir Klyuchnikov, Elena F. Batieva, Tatiana V. Tatarinova

Posted 16 Dec 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2019.12.15.876912

Over millennia, steppe nomadic tribes raided and sometimes overran settled Eurasian civilizations. Most polities formed by steppe nomads were ephemeral, making it difficult to ascertain their genetic roots or what present-day populations, if any, have descended from them. Exceptionally, the Khazar Khaganate controlled the trade artery between the Black and Caspian Seas in VIII-IX centuries, acting as one of the major conduits between East and West. However, the genetic identity of the ruling elite within the polyglot and polyethnic Khaganate has been a much-debated mystery; a controversial hypothesis posits that post-conversion to Judaism the Khazars gave rise to modern Ashkenazim. We analyzed whole-genome sequences of eight men and one woman buried within the distinctive kurgans of the Khazar upper (warrior) class. After comparing them with reference panels of present-day Eurasian and Iron Age populations, we found that the Khazar political organization relied on a polyethnic elite. It was predominantly descended from Central Asian tribes but incorporated genetic admixture from populations conquered by Khazars. Thus, the Khazar ruling class was likely relatively small and able to maintain a genetic identity distinct from their subjugated populations over the course of centuries. Yet, men of mixed ancestry could also rise into the warrior class, possibly providing troop numbers necessary to maintain control of their large territory. However, when the Khaganate collapsed it left few persistent genetic traces in Europe. Our data confirm the Turkic roots of the Khazars, but also highlight their ethnic diversity and some integration of conquered populations.

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