Xiongnu and proto Xiongnu characteristics noted from the excerpt on the Xiongnu (scroll down to read):
The ancestors of the Xiongnu are archaeologically documented through the slab graves of Mongolia, the graves, dating to the period 700-300 B.C.E.,
The orientation of the graves: the dead are buried with the head pointing to the rising Sun
Sometimes a stone column decorated with animal motifs was also set on the grave. Sometimes used wooden coffins, lacquered red
Many grave artifacts that reveal far-flung trade, including cowry shells and jades of Chinese origin
Ceramic vessels were also placed into graves, as well as animal bones that indicate the maintenance of domestic horses, cattle, and sheep.
These people were essentially nomadic pastoralists who also cast fine bronzes and forged iron weapons.
Wolf emblem was a symbol of some significance
Some tribes like shanyu Zhi-zhi had contact with Roman mercenaries who fled following their battle defeat at Carrhae in 53 B.C.E.
The Xiongnu had a skilled cavalry, used hardy steppe horses from which they wielded large composite bows; they herded their cows and sheep and hunted with bows and arrows from horseback.
Young boys learned to fire bows and arrows at hares and birds from a tender age, developing hunting and fighting skills as they grew up.
Xiongnu succession: Younger son often favored for succession
Bravery was rewarded with high military positions
Xiongnu rulers often sent their less important male scion / children as a hostage to other powerful nomadic tribes or peoples – where the balance of power is reversed in favor of the more powerful tribe.
The heqin [peace through kinship relationships] treaty system was instituted between the Han-Xiongnu/Hunnus, it acknowledged the inferiority of the Chinese and indicated a balance of power in favor of the Xiongnu: – a royal Han princess would be sent to the Xiongnu in a marriage alliance, accompanied by expensive gifts of silk and food, whereupon the two states should be recognized as equals, with a mutually agreed upon territorial border (the Great Wall of China) . This treaty, which in effect was a means of reducing the Xiongnu threat through gifts and bribery, was renewed on many occasions, always entailing an increased quantity of gifts from the Han, including gold and silk.
Where the balance of power reversed in favor of the Han Chinese, the Xiongnu ruler would carry out an act of prostration and in so doing be rewarded with gifts and an official gold SEAL
They organized their military in tens, hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands
The Xiongnu were known for infighting and ruthlessness, even among their own tribes
[These treaties also enabled the Xiongnu to enrich themselves and further their pastoral economy and trade through frontier markets, see Turks in World History by Carter Vaughn Findley]
Successor tribes of the Xiongnu, the Xianbi, the Rouran/aka Juan-juan from where the first tribe called Turk came – all used khagan titles instead of the chanyu or shanyu title, and ruled khaghanates. The earliest westward migrations of these Turkic inhabitants of western Eurasia became known to the West as the Huns, whose way of life were almost identical with that of the Xiongnu. See also The Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe by Hyun Jin Kim
Ancestors of Xiongnu
The ancestors of the Xiongnu described in the HAN DYNASTY Chinese histories are archaeologically documented through the slab graves of Mongolia. These burials are so called because the dead are interred, usually with the head pointing to the rising Sun, within a wall of upright stone slabs. Sometimes a stone column decorated with animal motifs was also set on the grave. The graves, dating to the period 700-300 B.C.E., included many artifacts that reveal far-flung trade, including cowry shells and jades of Chinese origin. Ceramic vessels were also placed into graves, as well as animal bones that indicate the maintenance of domestic horses, cattle, and sheep. These people were essentially nomadic pastoralists who also cast fine bronzes and forged iron weapons.
the Xiongnu began to pose an immediate problem for the Chinese after the rise of Maodun, which led to the construction of the Great Wall of China under Emperor QIN SHINHUANGDI. In 214 B.C.E. this emperor also sent a large military force, said to number 100,000, against the Xiongnu under General Meng Tian. As with all later campaigns, the soldiers had to face vast distances, cold, problems of supply, and a mobile, well-organized enemy. The Xiongnu had developed their cavalry to a fine pitch of skill. They had hardy steppe horses from which they wielded large composite bows.
EXCAVATIONS OF BURIALS AND SETTLEMENTS
Four major cemeteries have been excavated, and hundreds of graves opened at Khunui-gol in the upper reaches of the Orchon River in central Mongolia near Cecerleg, at Noin-Ula, north of Ulaan baatar, and at Sudzhinsk and Derestui, south of Lake Baikal. The burial ground at Khunui-gol is thought to contain the grave of Maodun himself, one of the most important individual burials from Noin-Ula was excavated in 1924. It is very large, measuring 24.5 meters (80 ft) on each side, and the wooden coffins, preserved the dry and cold conditions, were decorated with painted lacquer. These had been placed on a fine felt carpet decorated with animal designs . This was the tomb of the Shanyu Wuzhu lu, who died in the early first century C.E. One grave contained a bronze crown depicting the head of a wolf. There are felt carpets with fine animal and abstract designs, Chinese silks, and Western fabric showing the influence of Ghandaran art. Archaeology has also shown how the development of a powerful steppe empire influenced settlement patterns, for several large fortified settlements have been found, as at Gua-Dov and Ivolgnisk east of Lake Baikal. Under the shanyu Zhi-zhi, a fort was built at Talas that is said to have been influenced by Roman mercenaries who had gravitated east after their defeat at Carrhae in 53 B.C.E. The Xiongnu also developed their own legal system and a script.
SIMA QIAN’S DESCRIPTION OF XIONGNU
It was natural that the Grand Han historian SIMA QIAN should devote a chapter of his history to these people who exercised such a profound influence on Han foreign policy. He described their nomadic way of life, in which they herded their cows and sheep and hunted with bows and arrows from horseback. He was struck by the way in which young boys learned to fire bows and arrows at hares and birds from a tender age, developing hunting and fighting skills as they grew up. After describing the long and difficult relations between the Chinese and the Xiongnu since the days of the remote XIA DYNASTY, he concentrated on the rise to power of the great leader Maodun, a shanyu who was to play a prominent part in the foreign relations of the early Han dynasty. Maodun’s father, Touman, favoring his younger son for the succession, had sent Mao dun as a hostage to the Yuechi. Touman then attacked the Yuezhi, anticipating that they would murder Maodun in retribution. Maodun escaped and was placed in charge of 10,000 Xiongnu cavalry in recognition of his bravery. He developed a whistling arrow and trained his men to fire their own arrows at all his chosen targets on pain of death if they disobeyed. Many were killed when they hesitated to fire after Maodun first shot his arrow at a favorite horse and then at his major wife. Having trained the remainder in implicit obedience, he fired at and killed his father and then murdered the court nobility. It is this fiery spirit that the first Han emperor, GAOZU, had to contend with .
According to Sima Qian, just as Gaozu, the founder and first emperor of the Western Han dynasty, established himself after a period of upheaval, Maodun became the shanyu of the Xiongnu. The military expertise and unified following forged by Maodun created an immediate threat both the security of the Han empire, and a confrontation was inevitable. In 200 B.C.E Gaozu led his army in person and he was surrounded and defeated at the Battle of Pincheng. The emperor managed to escape capture but thereafter changed his policy toward to the Xiongnu to one of diplomacy. A treaty was signed with four major provisions. The first was that a royal Han princess should be sent to the Xiongnu in a marriage alliance. She should be accompanied by expensive gifts of silk and food, and the two states should be recognized as equals. Finally it was agreed that their mutual border should be the Great Wall of China. This treaty, which in effect was a means of reducing the Xiongnu threat through gifts and bribery, was renewed on many occasions, always entailing an increased quantity of gifts from the Han, including pieces of gold. Maodun died in 174 B.C.E., and then by Jun Chen (r. 160-126 B.C.E.)
Until 134 B.C.E. the Xiongnu both accepted the gifts of the Han emeperor and sent raids south of the Great Wall with relative impunity. However, the forceful emperor WUDI in 134 B.C.E. reversed this policy and sent his armies against the Xiongnu. Successful campiagins in 127, 121, and 119 B.C.E. saw the Han throw back the Xiongnu and establish new commanderies in the western regions. In the period between these setbacks and 52 B.C.E., military defeats were exacerbated by internal discension. The Xiongnu splintered into rival groups, and at one stage there were as many as five claiming the title shanyu. At the same time, the magnificent and valued gifts from the Han court dried up, and there were problems with the Han succession, for under the system of primogeniture it was possible for very young boys to succeed. This might be possible under the Han court system with its entrenched regencies, but it was not adaptive for relations with the steppes. Many attempts to renew the marriage alliance system were rebuffed by the Han because they insisted that the shanyu pay homage to the emperor and accept the status of a client state. However, the situation was reversed in 52-51 B.C.E. when the shanyu Huhanye decided to accept Chinese terms and traveled personally to Xian.
The terms involved sending Huhanye’s son to the Han court as a hostage and paying homage to the emperor. He was treated with considerable respect and was not required to prostrate himself. On the contrary he returned home laden with gifts including five kilograms (11 lbs) of gold, 77 suits of clothes, 8,000 bales of silk cloth, and 1,500 kilograms of silk floss. Attracted by such expensive gifts he expressed a wish to repeat the ceremony two years later and was given even more in return. On each such occasion until the end of the dynasty, the gifts increased in quantity until in 1 B.C.E. a serious drain on Han resources, served to maintain peace on the northwest frontier and enhance trade along the SILK ROAD. The situation changed dramatically for the Xiongnu with the WANG MANG interregnum and the political turmoil in China during the civil wars that preceded the establishment of the Eastern Han dynasty. From 18 to 48 C.E. Yu became the shanyu and not only spurned the new dynasty’s attempts to revert to the client relationship, but had an alleged descendant of Emperor WUDI declared emperor in the northern region of China so that the puppet ruler could pay him homage. This episode was short lived, however. The Xiongnu were now divided into southern and northern groups.
In 50 C.E. the shanyu Bi, leader of the southern group, again paid homage to the Han emperor. The act of prostration was well rewarded, for he returned home with 36,000 cattle, 10,000 bale of silk cloth, rice and an official gold SEAL. Thereafter, annual payments to the southern Xiongnu were regularized, reaching in 91 C.E. the sum of 100 million cash, according to the administrator Yuan An. The nomads were also brought in to settle south of the great Wall, alongside Chinese communities in an attempt at assimilation. The Northern Xiongnu, however, were not recognized and were treated as a potential enemy.
Further reading: Loewe, M., and E.L. Shaugnessy eds The Cambridge History of Ancient China. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1999; Psarras, S,-K. “Xiongnu Culture: Identification and Dating,” Central European Journal 39 (1995); 102-136.
Excerpted from Encyclopedia of Ancient Asian Civilizations by Charles Higham, pp. 390-392
Other readings on the Xiongnu:
Unraveling the population history of the Xiongnu to explain molecular and archaeological models of prehistoric Mongolia by Ryan Schmidt
See also the chapter “A Glimpse of Hun Life”, from A History of the Later Roman Empire
Ryan W. Schmidt and Noriko Seguchi, Craniofacial variation of the Xiongnu Iron Age nomads of Mongolia reveals their possible origins and population history, Quaternary International, Available online 13 December 2014
This paper examines Iron Age Mongolia during a time when nomadic tribes created the world’s first steppe empire in Inner Asia. These aggregated tribes, known as Xiongnu (3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD), came to define steppe polity construction, later used by the Mongol Empire under the reign of Genghis Khan. They moved extensively over the eastern steppe and interacted, both in trade and intermarriage, with peoples from southern Siberia to Xinjiang. However, the Xiongnu as a people are relatively unknown to scholars, as they did not possess a written language. This study assesses Xiongnu population history and biological structure by analyzing craniofacial diversity via geometric morphometrics. Twenty-four coordinate cranial landmarks were used to test relationships among groups in the region and infer potential biological origins. The Relethford–Blangero R-matrix method was used to test hypotheses of phenotypic variation resulting from microevolutionary processes. This study hypothesizes biological continuity among Xiongnu individuals extending into modern Mongolian populations. Alternatively, long-range gene flow from adjacent geographic regions might suggest a complex population structure among the Xiongnu indicative of multiple populations controlling administrative functions. Results indicate the Xiongnu were potentially composed of at least two biologically distinct groups. Individuals from the elite cemetery of Borkhan Tolgoi (Egiin Gol) share their ancestry with a Bronze Age population from western Mongolia, and possibly, to a later migration of Turks, who came to rule the eastern steppe from the 6th to 8th centuries AD. The Xiongnu also evidence biological similarity with nomads from the Mongol Empire during the medieval period and modern Mongolians, as well as modern and ancient Central Asian, Chinese, and Siberian groups. These results are similar to ancient DNA studies that suggest a mix of Eastern and Western Eurasian haplogroups in the Xiongnu while also achieving consensus with models of steppe polity formation proposed by archaeologists who suggest local ties to extra-local groups through interactive exchange networks. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1040618214009033
Bennett, Casey and Frederika A. Kaestle (2006) “A Reanalysis of Eurasian Population History: Ancient DNA Evidence of Population Affinities” Human Biology 78: 413-440. http://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/humbiol/vol78/iss4/3
This thesis paper does an elaborate analysis and exploration of the genetic affinities between the different groups of peoples of East Asia, Eurasia to find a match between those modern populations and the ancient necropolises of Egyin Gol and Linzi populations, in the process shedding light not only upon the SEA and EAS genetic components, but highlighting the vastly different origins-sources outside East Asia for Linzi and Egyin Gol, the latter being identified as a Xiongnu necropolis.