Warrior Princesses Helped Build Ancient Asian Empire

New research suggests that women were critical to the success of the Xiongnu Empire.

This empire, an alliance of nomadic people across Central Asia, stretched from Kazakhstan to Mongolia. It thrived for about 300 years, between the second century BC and the first century AD. The first nomadic empire, more than a thousand years before Genghis Khan, it controlled the Eastern Eurasian steppe. Historians believe their people were the ancestors of the Mongols.

Buried in splendor

Archaeologists studying Xiongnu graves in the foothills of the Altai Mountains found that the bodies buried in the biggest, deepest tombs belonged to important women, either princesses or high-ranking individuals.

The pieces they are buried with show that these were not just women sent off to marry, but mounted warriors. The tombs included bronze chariot pieces, gold discs, and the remains of several sacrificed horses and livestock. The coffins themselves featured elaborate designs depicting the sun and moon.

A large tomb at the excavation site.

A large tomb at the excavation site. Photo: Michel Neyroud


The researchers carried out DNA analysis at two Xiongnu cemeteries. The data reaffirms the importance of princesses within the empire. Previous DNA samples showed huge genetic diversity, but the women within the elaborate tombs all had DNA that was closely related to people from the heartland of the Xiongnu empire, in modern-day Mongolia. Men from smaller surrounding graves showed a huge genetic range.

Researchers believe that through marriage, the elite women built alliances and political partnerships across the expanding empire.

Gold sun and moon symbols of the Xiongnu were found on the coffins of the elite women.

Xiongnu gold sun and moon symbols from the coffins of the elite women. Photo: J. Bayarsaikhan


Silk Road

How the Xiongnu buried each woman makes it clear they retained their upper-class position throughout their lives.

The items also showcase trading along the ancient Silk Road. They included Egyptian ceramic beads, silk clothing, and Chinese mirrors. The Xiongnu constructed the coffins out of wood harvested from a region hundreds of kilometers away.

Illustration of the Xiongnu

Illustration of the Xiongnu. Image: Gary Todd


Though there are very few records or remains from the empire, Chinese records mention them as enemies. In these Chinese records, the name Xiongnu translates to “fierce slave.” The Chinese built some defensive structures, which eventually became the Great Wall of China, to stop the regular attacks of the Xiongnu.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.