Local circulation of elites punctuated by transregional mobility enabled steppe political consolidation in the Xiongnu nomadic state

Cheryl A. Makarewicz, Christine Winter-Schuh, Meghan Jackson, Erik G. Johannesson, Chunag Amartuvshin, William Honeychurch

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The Xiongnu polity (ca. 200 BC– 150 AD) emerged out of indigenous community-centered socio-political structures to forge a powerful state that commanded the Mongolian steppe and beyond. Underpinned by a highly mobile pastoralist population, accustomed to seasonally rhythmic moves and embedded in an equestrian culture that facilitated rapid transport over long-distances, it remains unclear precisely how the movement of commoners, local aristocrats and regional elites abetted the formation and organization of Xiongnu state structures. Here, we evaluate Xiongnu movement and dietary intake through multi-stable isotopic analyses of tooth enamel from directly dated Xiongnu intermediate elites recovered from the mortuary center of Baga Gazaryn Chuluu–a prominent granite outcrop set in the Gobi Desert. Carbon isotope (δ13C) analysis indicates millet was consumed by some individuals, but whether or not this C4 cultivar contributed to the diets of most elites remains ambiguous in this C3/C4 desert-steppe environment. The effectiveness of oxygen isotopes (δ18O) to establish mobility appears much reduced in steppe environments, where geospatially sensitive information appears disrupted by extraordinary seasonality in meteoric water oxygen isotopes, pronounced oxygen isotopic variation in potential drinking water sources, and culturally mediated drinking practices. Most revealing, strontium isotopes (87Sr/86Sr) indicate circulation of local elites around this central place and beyond, a mobility format that helped leaders cement their own position through political consolidation of spatially dispersed mobile pastoralist communities. The consistent presence at Baga Gazaryn Chuluu of extra-local intermediate elites also points toward the importance of transregional mobility in binding together the Xiongnu polity over the vast distances of the eastern steppe.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0298593
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number4 APRIL
StatePublished - Apr 2024
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2024 Makarewicz et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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