Did Huns learn to farm from the Romans?

The demise of the Roman Empire wasn’t all war and violence, suggests a new paper. Fresh research indicates nomadic groups such as the Huns may have actually collaborated with farmers on the outskirts of the empire rather than attacking them, overhauling our understanding of one of history’s biggest social upheavals.

A paper, published in the journal PLOS One, details analysis by a team of archaeologists of bone and tooth remnants from 5th century skeletons uncovered in cemeteries in the Roman border province of Pannonia, which today is in Hungary .

The team, led by Susanne Hakenbeck at the University of Cambridge, UK, was looking for evidence of relationships between local farmers and the invading nomads, including Huns and Scythians.

The influx of these horse-riding tribes from the Eurasian steppes is often regarded as a crucial destabiliser which contributed to the fall of the western Roman empire.

“The narrative surrounding these events frequently emphasises the fundamental cultural difference between these nomads and the settled populations of the late Roman provinces,” the researchers explain.

To find evidence of this, the team analysed levels of carbon, nitrogen, strontium and oxygen in bone collagen, dentine and tooth enamel found in five different cemeteries. The data was used to piece together the diets of each individual.

Surprisingly, the evidence revealed a diversity of animal proteins, and plants, levels of which altered over the years.

The changes suggest an overlap between the farmers and nomads and does not necessarily support the idea that their interaction was primarily hostile. It is possible that the two groups shared knowledge and agricultural practices.

“Rather than being characterised only by violence, the historically-documented influx of nomadic populations appears to have led to widespread changes in subsistence strategies of populations in the Carpathian basin,” the researchers write.

Given the fluctuating levels of animal protein, they suggest that groups of nomadic animal herders may have taken up farming, while the local agricultural industry adapted a new economic system to incorporate herding.

“Written sources tell us of violence, treachery and treaties that were broken as soon as they were made, but this was not the whole story,” says Hakenbeck.

“Our research gives an insight into ordinary people’s lives along the late Roman frontier, where nomadic animal herders could become farmers and farmers could become herders.”

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