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Origin of the Hsiung-nu


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The hsiung-nu cultural complex:
location and chronology

Hsiung-nu archeological culture in the Asian region of steppe zone marks the presence of the Hsiung-nu, and is the basis for determining a chronology of many of Siberia’s archaeological cultures and sites. Chinese written sources and imports (especially mirrors and "wu-shu" coins) in Hsiung-nu sites are the basis to the chronology of archaeological complexes in Central Asia and neighboring regions. The chronology and periodization of Hsiung-nu sites fundamentally influences local periodisation of many regions of Siberia, where analogies to various categories of the Hsiung-nu cultural complex are present. At present the standard date of the Hsiung-nu sites is between 3 Cent. B. C. - 1 Cent. A. D. This is the period of the greatest power of the Hsiung-nu and the data conforms by written sources as common.

Detailed analysis of these sources permits us to note certain contradictions, especially with the formation of Hsiung-nu cultural complex and its chronology. The written sources document the Hsiung-nu conquest and the distribution of their influence in Central Asia during the period of Maodun-chief, i. e. during the 3-rd and the beginnings of 2-nd B. C. (209 - 174 B. C). The written sources suggest that the Hsiung-nu initial territory and the chief’s headquarters in this period were in the northern areas of the Chinese Yan and Zhao states (east of Shanxi, north of Hebei, west of Liaoning, as well as in south-east Inner Mongolia). However in the listed area, typical Hsiung-nu cultural complexes are not present in the archaeological record.

Such sites can be found in other areas - in Trans-Baikal, in north and part of south Mongolia, but their chronologies do not correspond to the initial stage of the Hsiung-nu conquest. The most reliable material of the Hsiung-nu archaeological complexes are the "wu-shu" coins, the Han mirrors, and the inscriptions on some articles. The archaeological material from these Hsiung-nu sites does not permit a date earlier than the First century B. C. This conclusion runs counter to the conventional explanations based on Chinese written sources, which suggest an initial date of 3-rd Cent. B. C. for the Hsiung-nu complexes.

The distribution area of the archaeological sites is not the same area the Hsiung-nu first inhabited during the first decades of existence of the empire. The standard chronologies of the Hsiung-nu cultural complex must be up-dated.

A hypothesis follows. In late Scythian times the Hsiung-nu were one of many cattle-breeding tribes who inhabited the northern area of the states of Yan and Zhao. "Early Hsiung-nu" evidence may be suggested at the cemeteries at Nanshan’gen, Dunnangou, Zhouziadi, Juihuanmiao and some burials in the top stratum at Xiaziadian settlement and other sites. They are characterized by some attributes which are displayed later in burials of the Hsiung-nu.

The Hsiung-nu conquest started at the end of 3-rd B. C. and caused the movement of large populations as well as active interactions among various cultural groups in the eastern steppe zone. An essential transformation of the anthropological and cultural face of peoples of the Asian steppe began at this time. This process continued for some decades and ended not earlier than 1-st B. C., when typical Hsiung-nu cultural complexes were distributed over the huge territory that they controlled. This territory, however, did not include the initial homeland of the Hsiung-nu. They had already lost that area by the end of II B. C. after a long war with the Han empire. This conflict was recorded by the Chinese in contemporary written sources.

The chronological updating of the Hsiung-nu cultural complex offered here affects local dating of the archaeological monuments of Siberia. Written sources claim that, since 3-2 B. C., the Hsiung-nu supervised large regions; the date therefore usually thought of as the beginning of their power . Between the establishment of political and military control and the expansion of Hsiung-nu complex a certain time passed. Therefore the "Hun-Sarmatian" sites that contain Hsiung-nu features cannot be dated earlier than the formation of the Hsiung-nu complex. This proposition is confirmed by the appearance of "wu-shu" coins in the sites of the Tes period in the Minussinsk depression. Accordingly, it is possible to propose the existence in South Siberia of characteristic sites of Scythian period (the first collective burials in timber-frame) in the 3-2 B. C.

Corrected by Barbara Hazard