Hungarians as the ghost of the Magyar confederacy

The cultural legacy of the Magyars far outweighs their genetic impact

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Though right at the heart of Europe, Hungary is an ethnolinguistic oddity, with a distinct history and unique language. The Pannonian grasslands that cover most of its territory are the westernmost tendril of the Eurasian steppe. Though called the Nagy Alföld in Hungarian, or “Great Hungarian Plain,” in relation to the vast Pontic steppe to its east, it is quite small, only 10% the size. It has loomed large in European history because the Nagy Alföld is the furthest west that nomadic pastoralists could maintain vast herds of horses, from the Pontic Steppe’s Yamnaya herders 5,000 years ago, down to the Magyars in the early medieval period. It served as the base for Sarmatians who raided the Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD, the Avar Empire that menaced Byzantium in the 6th and 7th centuries, and it was here that in 453 AD Attila the Hun died in a drunken stupor, surrounded by riches plundered from half the continent.

It was with the arrival of the Magyars from the east in 895 AD that the Nagy Alföld came into its own as the heart of what was to become Hungary. The Sarmatians, Huns, and the Avars are all storied names in ancient annals, though terrors whose bite has faded from contemporary consciousness. The Magyars were all that, but they also left a legacy in the Hungarian national identity. Despite entering Europe as steppe barbarians, by the 12th century, the Magyars were at the heart of Christian civilization, erecting great cathedrals, sending knights on Crusade and intermarrying with the nobility of Germany and France. Just 200 years later, they were again on the frontier, the great bulwark of Christendom against the repeated hammer blows of the Ottoman Turks, until they were defeated and Budapest became the northwesternmost outpost of Islam. But they always remained European outsiders, as speakers of a language whose closest relatives are found in Siberia, a cultural mystery whose origins and affinity were only recently clarified by science.

The last barbarians

In the modern mind, the Hungarians are connected to the Huns due to phonetic similarity and the fact that the Huns also settled down in the Pannonian plain. But 450 years separate the defeat of Attila the Hun at the Battle of Catalaunian Plains and the arrival of the Magyar tribes to the Carpathian Basin. “Hungary” probably derives from the name of the Turkic tribes that formed the basis for the ancient Bulgar Empire, the Onogur. In the mind of Western Christians, there was confusion between the Turkic nomads of the steppe and the Magyars who were closely allied to them when they weren’t fighting one another (Hungarians refer to their nation as Magyarország, meaning “Magyar country”).

But the Huns were a more ancient Turkic tribe who likely never interacted with the Magyars in the latter’s lightning-fast migration from one end of Eurasia to another. And yet the Huns and Attila both retain a romantic allure for the Hungarian people. Most people today with the name Attila are ethnically Hungarian, while medieval histories of the Magyars begin with the myth that they and the Huns descend from two brothers, Magor and Hunor. With this connection, the Magyars established a legitimacy that tied their conquests to those of the fearsome Huns. Thus the Magyars who rose to power in the 10th century as the raiders par excellence of Europe could claim they were simply resurrecting an imperium that had always been theirs.

The Magyars’ predatory sorties are mostly faded from memory today, but in their time they were audacious, a ubiquitous menace for decades. The map above illustrates the expansive nature of the Magyar circuit across Europe. In 942, a contingent of raiders even arrived in the northeastern corner of Spain, in what was then the Umayyad Caliphate of al-Andalus. An annalist recorded their arrival:

To get to the land of Andalusia they traversed a long distance...Their way during their march crossed Lombardy, which borders them...Their dwelling places are on the Danube River and they are nomads as the Arabs without towns and houses living in felt tents in scattered halting-places ...proceeding from the Frankish country, after defeating whomever they found during their passage, attaining the height before Lérida, at the extreme end of the March...the advances of their cavalry put them in the plain of the valley of Ena, Cerratania and the city of Huesca…

They repeatedly marched from the edge of the Eurasian steppe all the way to the Atlantic ocean, slicing through the heart of such crisply bounded domains in modern textbooks as Bavaria, Thuringia and Brittany. The Magyars arrived at an opportune time, as 10th-century Europe was characterized by weak states and impotent rulers. This was the century when the Roman papacy was such a corrupt institution as to earn the label “pornocracy,” or “rule by prostitutes.” It was also the first century of the Capetians, who styled themselves the legitimate “Kings of the Franks,” but ruled little beyond Paris. Meanwhile, the various Germanic tribes were only just uniting into one singular nation, while Italy was as divided as ever. The Roman Empire devoted 90% of its tax revenue to supporting a large permanent army to keep the peace, but the warrior elite of Western Europe in the 10th century was little more than brigands, earning no salary beyond their plunder when on the campaign, and living off in-kind tribute from the peasants they terrorized under the nominal guise of ruling them.

So it is no surprise that such marauders could vault across northern Italy and southern France to raid Muslim Spain. Nomads in the saddle required little provisioning, and they lived off a land lacking the firm authority necessary to resist them. The Magyars exploded onto this fragmented landscape, unrestricted by any obeisance to civilized Christian norms.

The Roman Empire was weakened by 450 AD, but it was not impotent or fallen. The Huns had been kept at bay, whether through payment of tribute or military deterrence and diplomacy. Tenth-century Europe could not afford payment, because it was not a cash society. It could not resist because it was entirely disunited, a Christian civilization that was simply a collection of petty warring principalities, united by nominal loyalty to a Roman papacy constantly embroiled in civil wars.

In the 940’s, the Magyars ravaged Italy repeatedly, threatening Rome, and plundering lands as far south as the tip of the peninsula. At their initial arrival, Frankish chroniclers observed that the Magyars were quite different from the belligerent nobles called to service by their lords, or rag-tag peasants pressed into service against their will. Here is a description of the Magyars before the Battle of Pressburg in 907, one of their first major victories:

They are hardened to labour and fighting, and have immeasurable physical strength…they kill few with the sword, but many thousand by their arrows, which they shoot so skilfully from their horn bows that there is no defence from their volleys...In character they are haughty and rebellious…They are by nature tight-lipped, and are keener to action than words. 

- Abbot Regino of Lotharingia, World Chronicle (908)

With this victory against Bavarian forces, the Magyars secured hegemony over what was to become Hungary, and began a fifty-year campaign of raiding and plundering Europe incessantly. This only ended with their defeat at the second Battle of Lechfeld, in 955, where Otto I annihilated their army and captured and executed their leaders. Otto I was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor, solidifying his hold on the German tribes and establishing the political precedents which would serve as the basis for the later German nation-state.

And yet, unlike the Huns after their defeat in 451 AD, the Magyars did not fade away, allowing themselves to be diminished into historical footnotes. Their wars against Byzantium continued, as they consolidated their nation from a disparate collection of fractious tribes. In 1000 AD, Stephen I became the first Christian King of Hungary. Though his pagan father converted late in life, Stephen’s mother was raised a Christian. As her father had been baptized at Constantinople, she practiced Eastern Rite Christianity. In contrast, Stephen adopted Western Christianity, which would eventually become Roman Catholicism. With this choice, he guaranteed that Hungary would be the easternmost bulwark of Western Europe, rather than the northwesternmost frontier of the Byzantine world.

Strangers in Europe

When Magyars raided Muslim Spain in 942, many were captured, converted to Islam and ended up serving as bodyguards to the Caliph. Arab Muslim chroniclers referred to them as “Turks,” reflecting the common confusion alluded to above. The nomadic lifestyle of the Magyars was most commonly associated with Turkic people, and before their conquest of Hungary, the Magyar tribes were part of the Turkic confederacy of the Khazars. But the Magyars did not speak a Turkic language. Neither did they speak an Indo-European language. Rather, their dialects were clearly Uralic, related to the languages of the Finns and Samoyeds. Today Hungarians are 13 million of the world’s 25 million Uralic language speakers, the largest faction by far. More precisely, Hungarians speak a “Ugric” language, a family with three constituent populations, the Hungarians, the Mansi and the Khanty.

These Central Siberian ethnicities total only 50,000 total speakers. Unlike the Hungarians, the Mansi and Khanty are Asian in location and appearance. The distribution of the Uralic languages shows that they span both sides of the Urals:

Unlike in Finland, there are well-documented histories of ancient Hungary, as the Roman city of Aquincum preceded Budapest. The migration of the Magyars from the western reaches of the Pontic steppe is documented contemporaneously in texts and oral history. Earlier in the 9th century, Hungarian myths claim that the various clans of the Magyars coalesced under seven tribes. Though the language of the Hungarians is not Turkic, their early social structure and lifestyle upon their arrival in Europe bore a distinct resemblance to the Turks, likely due to their acculturation under the Khazars, and their assimilation of some Turks. One strand of Hungarian national myth asserts that the Magyar tribes who arrived in Pannonia were all men because the Bulgars had slaughtered all their women and children. Even if this myth is not based in fact (females in early Magyar burials were not dressed like local Slavs), it confirms and reinforces that the migration was due to exigencies of circumstance rather than choice. The Magyar hordes meted out violence to Christian Europe, but they had been forged in brutal circumstances, assimilating to a new nomadic lifestyle and surrounded by alien peoples.

Unsurprisingly, early Hungarian has a large number of loanwords from Turkic and Iranian dialects. Milk and cheese, plus gold and copper are from proto-Indo-Iranian, perhaps indicating that pastoralism and metallurgy were both adopted from Indo-Europeans early in the history of the proto-Magyars. Given the milieu of the Magyar elite before 900 AD, words related to fine dress, agriculture and viticulture in Old Hungarian are Turkic. But the core words from the Swadesh list clearly indicate Hungarian’s relationship to other Uralic dialects. Here are some strikingly similar core words between Finnish and Hungarian today:

Blood - veri-vér , We -  me-mi, Living - elävä-eleven

Linguistic phylogenetics suggests that the diversification of the Uralic languages occurred more than 4,000 years ago. While some groups drifted eastward (Samoyedic tribes and the Mansi and Khanty), most seem to have pushed westward. The Finnic tribes who started from the northern Urals pushed through sub-Arctic ecologies with which they were familiar, but the ancestors of the Magyars in the southern Urals region descended into a semi-arid steppe ecology. After 2000 BC, they adopted words for animal husbandry from the Iranian groups that were dominant in the region at the time.

And yet, the nearly 3,000-year span of Magyar steppe occupation is shadowy because the material culture of nomadic pastoral steppe societies is so similar that explicit identification of archaeological items to an ethnolinguistic group is difficult. Until the clearly attestable arrival of the Turkic Huns to the western steppe in the 4th century AD, the Magyars presumably already existed as a politically subordinate confederacy under Scythian and Sarmatian hegemony. The first attestation of Magyars refers to their service as mercenaries under the Bulgar Khan in 831 AD.

From this date, historians can trace the migration of the Magyars westward in annals of Byzantine historians, until they enter Europe just before 900 AD. Despite their coexistence with Iranian and Turkic people for thousands of years, and a strong cultural imprint of both of these groups on the Magyars, they somehow managed to preserve their ethnolinguistic identity. The same cultural continuity persists down to the present. While the ancient Bulgarians spoke a Turkic language, rather than the Slavic speech dominant there today, the modern Hungarians speak a language descended directly from pastoralist Magyar forebears. What might account for this difference? Perhaps it was a simple matter of numbers, and there were many more Magyars that flooded into the Pannonian plain than Bulgars who migrated to the lower Danube?

Written in their memes, not in their genes

Over the last twenty years, our understanding of human population genetics has seen a massive transformation due to genomics and ancient DNA. Genomics uncorked a gusher of sequence data, while ancient DNA provided a window into the demographics of the past.

With the advent of affordable genomic technology, scientists have mapped the sequences of a wide range of human populations (though there are always undersampled groups). By looking at hundreds of thousands of genetic markers, researchers have been able to compare Hungarians to their neighbors. Are they as genetically unique as they are ethno-linguistically? No, Hungarians are just another European population.

The plot above uses a framework where all the genetic data is fitted to a model of either nine or 11 ancestral populations. The Mansi and Khanty, the two Ugric populations linguistically related to the Hungarians present in Siberia, evince a massive magenta-colored ancestral component. This is present in low fractions in European Finns as well as North Russians. Most scholars believe that these Russian-speaking populations in the north were once Finnic in language and identity. 

In contrast, there is almost no evidence of this in Hungarians. Modern Maygar are genetically very similar to Bulgarians, Romanians and Slovaks. The other Uralic-speaking Europeans, the Finns, Estonians, and Karelians, show clear evidence of stronger genetic affinities to the Siberian relatives of the Hungarians, the Mansi and Khanty.

A different method that looks at genetic distances between populations as a whole gives similar results. The tree below illustrates the closest relatives of various European populations:

The Uralic-speaking groups are highlighted in red. While the Finns are very different from other Europeans, including their Swedish neighbors, the Hungarians cluster with Slovaks and Germans. The contemporary genetic evidence makes it clear that genetically, the Hungarians are no different from their neighbors any way you slice it.

The figure below shows the breakdown of West and East Eurasian Y (paternal) and mtDNA (maternal) lineages, with dark-blue representing East Eurasian and light-blue West Eurasian:

Every single Uralic group shows a bias whereby East Eurasian Y-chromosomal lineages are more common than East Eurasian mtDNA lineages. The implication is that the spread of Uralic languages tended to be driven by the migration and expansion of groups of men who took local wives. Of the groups in this list, the Hungarians have the fewest East Eurasian paternal lineages and have barely any East Eurasian mtDNA at all. 

Perhaps then the Magyar tribes were very small in number, but did this numerically minuscule elite culturally assimilate the masses of Slavic peasants under their rule? We know now that modern Hungarians descend from “Magyarized” populations. But what about the mounted warriors described by 10th-century Frankish chroniclers?

This is where ancient DNA comes in. The Magyars had a very distinct material culture from the people who preceded them. Their cemeteries are archaeologically identifiable as “Conqueror Graves.” Over the last decade, researchers have been reporting on genetic results from these graves, mostly paternal and maternal direct lineages. 

A 2019 paper, for example, looked at elite burials in Hungary from the Hunnic (400-500 AD), Avar (500-700 AD), and Magyar (1000-1200 AD) periods. Though the sample size of the Huns is only three, all were of mixed East Asian and European ancestry, and all had dark hair and eyes. The 15 Avars were mixed as well, and predominantly dark-haired and brown-eyed. Only three of these 18 individuals carried the genetic marker for lactase persistence, the ability to digest milk sugar as an adult (80% of modern Hungarians carry this trait). The paternal lineages are both West and East Eurasian, though it is notable that one of the Huns is of a prototypically Turkic Y-chromosomal haplogroup, confirming the ethnolinguistic affinities of these ancient people.

Of more interest is DNA from graves of elite Magyars, the Conquerors, dated to the period between 1000 and 1200 AD. About 30% of the Y-chromosomal lineages in these graves were East-Eurasian haplogroups, where we see fewer than 5% among modern Hungarians. The mtDNA from these samples shows a substantial East-Asian origin, nearly 40%, as opposed to the 1% in modern Hungarians. Like the Huns and Avars, these Conqueror graves showed evidence of mixed East and West Eurasian ancestry overall, with most individuals being unable to digest lactose as adults and being dark-haired and dark-eyed. Nevertheless, there was wide variation in admixture according to cemetery sampled, with clustering of European or Asian ancestry in particular locations, indicative of an ongoing process of admixture and the adoption by native European groups of Magyar identity. It is surely no coincidence that every single Conqueror sample found to be lactase persistent (20%) had substantial European ancestry.

A range of publications has now established that the Magyar Conqueror elite, the nobility and ruling class who governed Hungary during the medieval period, was different from modern Hungarians. But what about comparing the ruling class to the peasants 1,000 years ago? A recent paper looking purely at maternal lineages compared Conqueror cemeteries with commoner burials and found substantial differences. Over 20% of the 112 Conquerors had East-Eurasian mtDNA haplogroups, while only 8% of the 182 commoners did.

These data confirm that the medieval Magyars had a strong East-Eurasian affinity. Far more than modern populations, and the elite disproportionately more than the commoners. One of the East-Eurasian Y-chromosome haplogroups found in modern Hungary, N3a, is also found in many of the medieval samples. This lineage is strongly associated with the spread of Uralic peoples, or more precisely Uralic males.

A closer look at this lineage in Hungarians reveals important connections and patterns.

Here is the upshot: the Hungarian samples do not cluster with Finnic groups, but rather with the Khanty and Mansi, the two other Ugric populations. Additionally, the mutations that differentiate the Hungarians date to 3000 BC, roughly in line with linguistic models of the diversification of the Uralic languages. The fact that the Ugric N3a branch is shared with several Turkic groups is not surprising in light of the longstanding association of the Magyars with these populations on the Eurasian steppe before their migration to Europe.

A synthesis of genetic results can offer up a rough narrative of the origin of the Magyar tribes. Like other Uralic populations, the original Magyars were a mix of East and West Eurasian lineages. Similar to Uralic groups to their north, the Magyar carried Y-chromosomal N3a south and west, while their Mansi and Khanty relatives shifted deeper into Siberia. Once the Magyars adopted a pastoralist lifestyle, they assimilated and intermarried with various Iranian and later Turkic nomadic peoples. Magyar Conqueror cemeteries exhibit evidence of that in paternal lineages more often associated with Iranians and Turks (R1a1a-Z93 and Q). Conversely, some Magyars seem to have assimilated into Turkic groups, as evidenced by the presence of N3a among these peoples.

Contrary to the expectation of the myth that the Magyars arrived without women and children due to a genocidal slaughter ordered by the Bulgarian ruler, the mtDNA lineages in Conqueror burials are often East Eurasian. These results almost certainly underestimate the proportion of “pure” Magyar women, because the mtDNA of all Uralic peoples seems to have a substantial West-Eurasian component. Even the Siberian Mansi and Khanty are only 25%-33% East Eurasian in their mtDNA haplogroups, whereas medieval Magyars were 10-20%.

But today, East Eurasian mtDNA is very rare in Hungary. Similarly, Hungarians today have almost no detectable East-Eurasian genome-wide ancestry, in contrast with their medieval Conqueror forebears. Modern Hungarians generally are lactase persistent, in line with their fellow Central Europeans, while the Conquerors were not. The Conqueror Magyars were generally darker-haired and eyed than modern Hungarians.

Though the language of the Conquerors, and their myth, persisted, their genes did not. What happened?

It’s not always good to be king

Though the Hungarian invasions of Western Europe ended in 955 AD, the Kingdom of Hungary was a highly militarized territory with a nobility strongly oriented towards violence as a matter of course. The death of Stephen I ushered in decades of civil war, as Christian and pagan nobles contested for power. After the monarchy stabilized in the second half of the 11th century, Hungary embarked on wars of expansion against Venice, the Byzantines, and into Transylvanian territory. The Magyars also began sending students to Paris and Oxford and patronized the construction of French-influenced Gothic cathedrals in the 12th century. In less than 200 years, the Magyars had transformed themselves from pagan steppe nomads into the easternmost nation of Latin Western Christendom.

But in the early 13th century, Hungary was obliged to look east again, as the Mongols began their campaigns of world conquest. In 1241 and 1242, led by the general Subetai, the Mongols ravaged Hungary. At the Battle of Mohi, nearly the whole Hungarian army was slaughtered, up to 10,000 men. In the year after this defeat, as much as 25% of the population may have died due to the chaos ushered in by Mongol units having free rein over the Pannonian plain. The Nagy Alföld was the westernmost area of Eurasia where the Mongols could pasture their vast herds of horses, and so they used it as an operating base from which to raid other parts of the continent, conducting lightning raids north, west, and south.

Nevertheless, the Kingdom of Hungary survived the Mongol invasions. They improved their fortifications, having observed that the Mongols specifically struggled to take castles. In the 1280’s, the Mongols returned, this time in the form of the Golden Horde. But this second invasion of Hungary was an absolute failure, as the Magyars now stood ready.

Hungary’s status as the marcher state of Western Europe did not end with the recession of the Mongol threat, though. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Ottomans supplanted the Byzantines as Hungary’s great power rival in the Balkans. Between 1396 and 1526, the Hungarians fought the Ottoman Turks for supremacy, ultimately losing. At the Battle of Mohacs, 14,000 Hungarian soldiers died, 1,000 nobles were killed, and 2,000 captured prisoners were executed. Hungary was partitioned between the Habsburgs of Austria and the Ottomans. 

The rulers of Transylvania maintained some semblance of Magyar independence in their mountainous domain. Nevertheless, it is notable that the first two ruling Houses of Transylvania’s elective monarchy, the Zápolya and the Báthory, were not descended paternally from Conqueror lineages. Rather, they were Croat and German respectively.

In 2007, economic historian Gregory Clark concluded in his A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World that for most of the period between 1066 AD and 1900, the English gentry had a higher fertility rate than the lower classes. But, notably, the same did not hold for the titled nobility whose primary professions were war and conflict. Evolutionary biologist Peter Turchin has argued in War and Peace and War that elites tend to “overproduce” and competition over scarce resources leads to civil wars and conflict. Though in many cases it may be good to be king, the constant threat of violence and conflict in the premodern world makes it a high-risk, high-reward proposition.

The genetic data is clear that a substantial number of Conquerors arrived in Hungary during the 10th century. They are distinct and bear all the hallmarks of a Central Eurasian Uralic population. But today, Hungarians are no different than their neighbors, and the impact of distinctive Magyar ancestry seems faint at best. And yet the Conquerors, unlike the Bulgar Turks (or the Sarmatian Serbs and Croats), were not culturally assimilated by the Slavs they conquered. They enduringly propagated their language and identity to the native people of the land. 

Nevertheless, the evidence above also shows that they remained genetically distinct as a ruling caste, with particular lineages that went back to the tribal coalition that had been formed on the Pontic steppe in the 9th century during the medieval period. To the victors go the spoils. But this strategy has downside risks, as local elites can be decimated by constant war. The Conquerors first suffered losses under the Mongols, but it seems likely that their ultimate downfall was the evisceration of the military elite of Hungary at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, who were, ironically, a successor state to that ancient enemy of the Magyars, the Bulgars.

But despite the extinction of their genes, the Magyars live on in posterity. Árpád and Stephen I are immortal in the memory of a whole nation whose sons still commonly bear the name Attila. Genetically, the Magyars are but a ghost, but culturally they remain with us, vibrant and vigorous, the most numerous and assertive of the Uralic people. We all know that historical memory and ethnic identity can be protean, but the Magyars of today illustrate this starkly. The descendants of Slavic peasants, German knights and Walloon artisans have repopulated the land they call Magyarország, and cherish the memory of Magyar hillfolk who transformed themselves into nomadic warriors and terrorized Europe for a century before it was their turn to defend what had become their civilization against the Mongols and Turks. Sometimes language, myth and legend live on long after flesh and blood have been washed away.