Archaeology

Huns and Farmers Swapped Cultures in Harmony as the Roman Empire Crumbled

New research suggests that nomadic Huns may have settled and engaged in agricultural production, while some farmers on the frontier of the Roman Empire became more nomadic.

Attila the Hun's conquest on the frontiers of the Roman empire is widely understood as a contributing cause to the decline - and eventual fall - of the Roman empire. But new research casts doubt on depictions of the conflicts between Romans and Huns and the lifestyle of the supposedly nomadic armies led by Attila that rampaged the provinces bordering the Danube during the fifth century.

The research suggests that Huns and farmers in the region may have collaborated together and engaged in agriculture production.

"Our research overturns the established historical narrative of conflict on the late Roman frontiers," said Susanne Hakenbeck of the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study. "It shows instead that ordinary people responded quite pragmatically to the instability they experienced, by adapting to each other."

The team studied bones, tooth roots, and tooth enamel excavated from five fifth-century grave sites located in Hungary. We are, basically, what we eat. So the researchers were able to analyze strontium isotopes taken from samples and construct a picture of what diet the person consumed. Their findings suggest a switch from farming to herding or herding to farming - an observation that the researchers were "amazed" to find, Hakenbeck said.

At the time, Romans viewed a nomadic lifestyle as uncivilized. But Hakenbeck said their findings show that ordinary people may not have made such a moral distinction.

"While written accounts of the last century of the Roman empire may document particular convulsions of violence, they are largely silent on the cooperation and coexistence of people living in the frontier zone," the researchers write. " The influx of nomadic populations into east-central Europe in the fifth century AD may have caused enormous political upheaval and documented episodes of violence, but isotopic evidence shows people finding strategies to mitigate and perhaps even to benefit from these changes by modifying their subsistence economies."

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Hakenbeck and her colleagues compared samples from the grave sites against previously published data from Germany and Central Asia to gain further insight into the farmers' diets and nomadic pastoralist diets. The populations in Hungary showed signs of following both diets: an agricultural diet filled with cereals, pulses and moderate amounts of meat, as well as a pastoral diet that included more animal proteins alongside millet, which is an easy-to-grow crop often found in Central Asia.

"Our populations in Hungary show signs of having followed both diets, with medium to high animal protein consumption and a great reliance on millet," Hakenbeck said.

"Apart from a small number of elite burials, the Huns left little distinctive material evidence behind," Hakenbeck said. "Our new scientific evidence has really opened up a new way of studying people that were previously largely invisible."

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