Study Reveals Origin of the Mysterious Avars, Who Crushed the Roman Empire

The nomadic Avars appeared suddenly in Eastern Europe 1,500 years ago, crushed the remains of the Roman Empire under their boots and ruled for two centuries. Who were they?

Ariel David
Ariel David
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Reconstruction of an Avar armored horseman.
Reconstruction of an Avar armored horseman.Credit: Ilona C. Kiss
Ariel David
Ariel David

Who were the Avars? These conquering nomads rode from the east some 1,500 years ago, dealt crippling blows to an already moribund Roman Empire and ruled over large swaths of eastern Europe for more than two centuries. But the question of who exactly they were has occupied ancient and modern historians ever since.

Now geneticists have sequenced the genomes of dozens of these fearsome invaders. They were, it turns out, Mongolians, who formed an empire centuries before Genghis Khan.

More specifically, the Avars were the scions of an ancient tribal empire that spanned modern-day Mongolia as well parts of China and Russia. When that empire fell, part of its population apparently migrated thousands of kilometers in a mere handful of years from the steppes of northeast Asia to the plains of eastern Europe, concludes the study published Friday in the journal Cell.

Showing the Huns how to do it

The Avars are first mentioned by Byzantine chroniclers as arriving in the Caucasus around 558 C.E., notes Guido Alberto Gnecchi-Ruscone, a population geneticist from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and the lead researcher on the new study. Just a decade later the Avars invaded the Carpathian basin, a region now centered on modern-day Hungary but which ranges from Ukraine and Romania in the East to Austria and Croatia in the West.

About a century earlier, this area had become the core territory of another migrating nomadic tribe, the Huns. While perhaps more historically infamous, the empire of the Huns quickly evaporated after the death of its feared leader, Attila, in 453.

Grave associated with the AvarsCredit: Szilvia Döbröntey-David

The Avars, on the other hand, proved more successful in holding on to the lands they invaded in the sixth century. They sparred frequently with the Byzantine Empire, besieging the capital Constantinople in 626, and remained a power in eastern Europe until around 800, when they were finally vanquished by the advancing Frankish Empire of Charlemagne.

A Turkic domino

Though their semi-nomadic empire, or khaganate, ultimately fell, the Avars have left behind some 600 settlements and 100,000 known burials, many richly adorned with exquisitely decorated gold and silver artifacts.

To probe the genetic roots of the mysterious Avars, Gnecchi-Ruscone and colleagues sequenced the genomes of 66 individuals from the Carpathian basin, covering the entire Avar period as well as the preceding era.

The earlier genomes were typical of west Eurasians and mostly overlap with the genetic profile of modern-day inhabitants of the region, the researchers report in Cell.

But the Avars were completely different. Their DNA largely matched that of ancient populations that inhabited the Mongolian plateau.

Late Avar belt fitting from Klárafalva, HungaryCredit: Móra Ferenc Museum, Szeged

This was particularly true of people buried in the core areas of the Avar khaganate: they could trace 90 percent of their ancestry to northeast Asian groups, on average.

In the later period of the empire, the genomes of Avar elites show a small introgression of genetic material from the Caucasus. This is compatible with the idea that there was also an Avar population in that region (as the Byzantines had said), which remained in contact with their fellow tribespeople in eastern Europe, Gnecchi-Ruscone says.

For individuals found buried on the outskirts of the Carpathian basin, on the fringes of the Avar empire, the picture is more varied. Their genome still had a northeast Asian component, but it was mixed with stronger signals from the local eastern European population.

This suggests that the Avar khaganate’s model was a homogenous elite ruling the core of its empire, and local vassals and intermarriage to control outlying areas.

Back in the early Middle Ages, scholars had many theories on the origins of the Avars. Some thought they were a Turkic tribe from central Asia, others that they came from the Caucasus or northern Iran, or that they were just a mix of different barbaric tribes led by a charismatic leader. The Avars themselves didn’t use writing, so we can’t be sure of how they saw themselves, but, according to Byzantine chroniclers, they claimed to descend from an ancient empire known as the “Rouran khaganate.”

Drawing of Avar graveCredit: Balázs Wieszner / Tímea Czirbik-Gulyás/Zoltán Faur

Beeline for Rome

Putting together the genetic, historical and archaeological evidence, it seems that this was in fact the correct theory, the geneticists say.

Rouran was a nomadic confederation that ruled over much of northeast Asia from the fourth to sixth century. Around 550, it was taken over by the Gokturks, a Turkic people who then went on to create the first Turkic Empire, which spanned from China to the Black Sea.

Given what we now know about the Avars’ Mongolian ancestry, and the fact that they appeared in Europe a few years after the fall of the Rouran khaganate, it makes sense to conclude that the two are connected, Gnecchi-Ruscone concludes.

We cannot estimate the size of the population that left Mongolia after the Gokturk conquest, he says.

On one hand, the Avars did not replace the early medieval population of eastern Europe, but on the other, their genome showed no signs of inbreeding, which one would expect in a small group that doesn’t intermarry for more than a century, Gnecchi-Ruscone says.

This indicates that the exodus from Rouran was substantial enough to maintain genetic diversity. The lack of inbreeding in the core elites may have also been helped by the apparent exchanges with people from the Caucasus that occurred in the later Avar period, he adds.

Gold jug from the Nagyszentmiklós Treasure of the AvarsCredit: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien

One question remains. Less than two decades elapsed between the fall of Rouran and the arrival of the Avars in the Carpathian basin. This is not long by the standards of ancient migrations of large groups of men, women and children. With the possible exception of their stop in the northern Caucasus, the Avars seem to have made a pretty intentional beeline for the lands of the embattled Roman Empire. Why not settle somewhere on the 6,000-kilometer journey from Mongolia to Hungary?

“They were a defeated people on the run, but perhaps they had some knowledge of a rich empire to the West and lands filled with gold,” Gnecchi-Ruscone speculates. “Maybe, urged on by this dream, they reached the borders of the collapsing Roman empire, and that’s where they settled, plundering the gold they so much desired, which is the same gold we now find in their tombs.”

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