Murong horseman

The Mongols were a confederation of tribes of nomadic horsemen that hailed from the steppes north of China and arguably became the greatest conquerors the. world has ever known. According to legend they were created by the union of a blue wolf and deer (the blue wolf was the standard of Genghis Khan’s armies). [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic: Genghis Khan: December, 1996; After Genghis Khan: February 1997]

According to Chinese sources the Mongols came from the area around the east bank of ancient Wangjian River — present-day Argun River, a 1,620-kilometer (1,000-mile) -long river that forms part of the eastern China–Russia border, together with the Amur — in Inner Mongolia. The term "Mongol" originated from a tribe called Mengwushiwei in the Chinese book “Jiu Tang Shu” (“The Ancient History of the Tang Dynasty”), written in the tenth century. Mengwushiwei was changed to “Mongol" for the first time during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). It gradually became the common name of many tribes. Around the seventh century, proto-Mongols started to migrate toward the grassland in the west. In the 12th century, they lived in the upper reaches of Onon River, Kerulen River, and Tola River, east to the Kente Mountains. At the beginning of the 13th century, the Mongolian tribe headed by Genghis Khan unified the other tribes in Mongolian area, and gradually formed a new ethnic community. Therefore, "Mongolia" became the name for a nationality instead of a tribe. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

The origin of the Mongols is obscure. It is believed that many of the so-called Huns, who invaded Europe, as well as the Khitan, who founded a dynasty (916–1125) in northern China, may have been Mongols. Archeological finds established that a distinct people lived in the Mongol areas as early as the second millennium B.C. Ancient Chinese manuscripts mentioned Turkic-speaking people living in what is now Mongolia from the 4th century B.C. The first people known to have spoken a Mongol language were the Khitan.

Websites and Resources: Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire ; The Mongols in World History ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) ; Encyclopædia Britannica article ; Mongol Archives ; “The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 ; The Scythians - Silk Road Foundation ; Scythians ; Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Huns ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia

Ancient Mongolia and Eurasian Steppe

horse on the Mongolian steppe

The home range of the early horsemen, the Eurasia steppe, is vast area of land that extends from the Carpathian mountains in Hungary to eastern Mongolia. Archeological evidence shows that people lived in Tuva and Altai regions of southern Russia, eastern Kazakhstan and western Mongolia in Paleolithic times. The Scythians roamed there from the 7th to 3rd centuries B.C., followed by the Huns in the 2nd century B.C. to A.D. 2nd century, the ancient Turks from th 6th to 12th centuries, the Uighurs in the 8th century and the Kyrgyz in the 9th century. In 1207 the region was conquered by Mongols under Genghis Khan.

Archaeological evidence places early Stone Age human habitation in the southern Gobi between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. By the first millennium B.C., bronze-working peoples lived in Mongolia. With the appearance of iron weapons by the third century B.C., the inhabitants of Mongolia had begun to form tribal alliances and to threaten China. The origins of more modern inhabitants are found among the forest hunters and nomadic tribes of Inner Asia. They inhabited a great arc of land extending generally from the Korean Peninsula in the east, across the northern tier of China to the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic and to the Pamir Mountains and Lake Balkash in the west. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Archaeologists working in Outer Mongolia and Inner Mongolia in China have uncovered the remains of more than 100 walled towns and cities of settled people dating back as far as the 3rd millennium B.C. and found extraordinarily beautiful artifacts such as stone altars and jade dragons. Scattered around Outer Mongolia are burial stones organized in squares and circles. Some cover slab-lined tombs and are thought to date as far back as to 2000 B.C.

Around 1500 B.C., Mongolia became colder and drier—a climate more conducive to grasslands than crops—prompting a shift from a crop-based to livestock-centered society. Cattle was raised in areas where pastures were rich. Sheep were raised in areas where the pastures were sparser.

During most of recorded history, Mongolia and the Eurasian steppe has been an area of constant ferment from which emerged numerous migrations and invasions to the southeast (into China), to the southwest (into Transoxiana — modern Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, Iran, and India), and to the west (across Scythia toward Europe). By the eighth century B.C., the inhabitants of much of this region evidently were nomadic Indo-European speakers, either Scythians or their kin. Also scattered throughout the area were many other tribes that were primarily Mongol in their ethnologic characteristics. *

Origin of the Mongols

Scholars believe the Mongols descended from the Xianbei (the northern branch of the Donghu, a proto-Tungus group mentioned in Chinese histories as existing as early as the 7th century B.C.) and the proto-Mongols (tribes from the 1st century B.C. that are called Donghu in Chinese sources). The former term includes the Mongols proper (also known as the Khalkha Mongols), Oirats, the Kalmyk people and the Southern Mongols. The latter comprises the Abaga Mongols, Abaganar, Aohans, Baarins, Gorlos Mongols, Jalaids, Jaruud, Khishigten, Khuuchid, Muumyangan and Onnigud. The Daur people are descendants of the para-Mongolic Khitan people. Mongolians are also related to the Manchu. [Source: Wikipedia]

In regard to their paternal genetic lineages, the majority of Mongolians belong to the y-DNA Haplogroup C-M217. Of C-M217's four subclades, C-M407 is phylogenetically extremely divergent from the others, and is more closely related to subclades of C-M217 that are found among present-day Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, and other East and Southeast Asians; however, among Mongols, C-M407 is found most frequently toward the north (among Barghuts and Buryats as well as the neighboring Khamnigans and Soyots and toward the west among Dorbet Kalmyks.

Eurasian steppe

Haplogroup O-M175 and Haplogroup N-M231 are found at medium rates among present-day Mongols. The subclades of Haplogroup O-M175 that have been observed among Mongols tend to be similar to those found among Han Chinese, whereas the subclades of Haplogroup N-M231 that have been observed among Mongols tend to be similar to those found among Nenets, Nganasans, Khakasses, and Tuvans, groups found in Siberia.

The maternal haplogroups are diverse but similar to other northern Asian populations, including Haplogroup D, Haplogroup C, Haplogroup B, and Haplogroup A, which are shared among indigenous American and Asian populations. West Eurasian mtDNA haplogroups Haplogroup HV, Haplogroup U, Haplogroup K, Haplogroup I, Haplogroup J, represents 14 percent in western Xingjang Mongolian, 10 percent in Mongolia, 8.4 percent in central Inner Mongolian samples, 2 percent in eastern Xin Barage Zuoqi County samples. West Eurasian mtDNA haplogroups haplogroup U/K, haplogroup R0'HV/H represents 14.3 percent in Khalkha.

Early States and Peoples Connected to the Proto-Mongols

Scholars at various times have argued that the ancestors of the Mongols were Scythians, Huns or maybe Tungusic peoples from Siberia. Based on Chinese historical texts their ancestry is traced back to the Donghu, a nomadic confederation occupying eastern Mongolia and Manchuria. The Donghu are mentioned by great Chinese historian Sima Qian as already existing in Inner Mongolia north of Yan (a state in present-dat northeast China) in 699–632 B.C. The Donghu were neighbors of the Xiongnu, whose identity is still debated today. The Donghu are often labeled as proto-Mongol because Chinese histories trace only Mongolic tribes and kingdoms (Xianbei and Wuhuan peoples) from them, although some historical texts claim a mixed Xiongnu-Donghu ancestry for some tribes. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Xianbei were part of the Donghu confederation, and in earlier times were perhaps independent of the Donghu confederation and the Chinese Zhou dynasty (1050–221 B.C.). A the Warring States (476 – 221 B.C.) poem mentioned small-waisted and long-necked Xianbei women. Genetic evidence these early Xianbei came from the nearby Zhukaigou culture (2200–1500 B.C.) in the Ordos Desert, where maternal DNA corresponds to the Mongol Daur people and the Tungusic Evenks. The Zhukaigou Xianbei (part of the Ordos culture of Inner Mongolia and northern Shaanxi) had trade relations with the Shang Dynasty (1600 to 1046 B.C.) The Upper Xiajiadian culture (1000–600 B.C. was centered in the same place as the Donghu confederation

After the Donghu were defeated by Xiongnu, the Xianbei and Wuhuan were the primary surviving groups of the confederation. Tadun Khan of the Wuhuan (died A.D. 207) was the ancestor of the proto-Mongolic Kumo Xi The Wuhuan were of direct Donghu royal line while the Xianbei were of the lateral Donghu line. The two groups had a somewhat separate identity but shared the same language. The Xianbei reached their peak under the vast, but short lived, Xianbei state (A.D. 93–234).

Chinese histories record three major groups splitting from the Xianbei: 1) the Rouran, 2) the Khitan and the Shiwei. Among the other groups that lived at the same time were the Murong, Duan and Tuoba. They were all nomadic herders who were strong militarily and were shamanists or Buddhist. There is no direct evidence that the Rouran spoke Mongolic languages but most scholars agree that they were Proto-Mongolic. The Khitan, on the other hand, had two scripts of their own and many Mongolic words have been found in their half-deciphered writings.

Beginning around the A.D. 5th century, 1) the Tuoba Xianbei ruled the southern part of Inner Mongolia and northern China; 2) the Rouran ruled eastern Mongolia, western Mongolia, the northern part of Inner Mongolia and northern Mongolia; 3) the Khitan were strongest in Inner Mongolia north of Korea; and 4) the Shiwei were located to the north of the Khitan. In the centuries that followerd these tribes and kingdoms were not as strong as the First Turkic Khaganate in 555, the Uyghur Khaganate in 745 and the Yenisei Kirghiz states in 840. The Tuoba were eventually absorbed into China. The Rouran fled west and either disappeared or say, invaded Europe as the Avars. Some Rouran under Tatar Khan migrated east, founding the Tatar confederation, who became part of the Shiwei. The Khitans, who were independent after their separation from the Kumo Xi (of Wuhuan origin) in 388, existed as a minor power in Manchuria until one of them, Abaoji (872–926), established the Liao dynasty (916–1125).

Between the 7th and 12th centuries, proto-Mongols settled in the upper reaches of the Onon, Kerulen and Tula rivers and areas east of the Kentey Mountains. he Onon is a river in Mongolia and Russia that is 1,032 kilometres (641 mi) long The Tula (Tuul) River lies in central and northern Mongolia and is sacred to the Mongols. The Kherlen River (also known as Kern or Kerulen) is a 1,254-kilometers river in Mongolia and China that flows into the Argun River, which flows into the Amur. Later, their offshoots grew into many tribal groups, such as Qiyan, Zadalan and Taichiwu. The Mongolian grasslands and the forests around Lake Baikal were also home to many other tribes such as Tartar, Wongjiqa, Mierqi, Woyela, Kelie, Naiman and Wanggu, which varied in size and economic and cultural development. "Mengwu" is the earliest Chinese name of "Mongolia". It first appeared in the Tang dynasty (618-907). "Mongol" initially was the name for one of the Mongolian tribes that roamed along the Argun (Erguna, Ergune) River.[Source:]

Marco Polo’s Theory on the Founding of the Mongols

“Chapter XLVI: Of the City of Caracoron” is about the foundation of the city of Caracoron (Karakorum), the first Mongol capital and Marco Polo's own theory about the rise of the Tartars (the Mongols). According to Marco Polo's account: “Caracoron is a city of some three miles in compass. [It is surrounded by a strong earthen rampart, for stone is scarce there. And beside it there is a great citadel wherein is a fine palace in which the Governor resides.] ‘Tis the first city that the Tartars possessed after they issued from their own country.[Source: “Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East,” translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule (London: John Murray, 1903) Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

“And now I will tell you all about how they first acquired dominion and spread over the world. Originally the Tartars dwelt in the north on the borders of Chorcha. Their country was one of great plains; and there were no towns or villages in it, but excellent pasture-lands, with great rivers and many sheets of water; in fact it was a very fine and extensive region. But there was no sovereign in the land. They did, however, pay tax and tribute to a great prince who was called in their tongue Unc Can, the same that we call Prester John, him in fact about whose great dominion all the world talks. The tribute he had of them was one beast out of every ten, and also a tithe of all their other gear.

Deer stones

“Now it came to pass that the Tartars multiplied exceedingly. And when Prester John saw how great a people they had become, he began to fear that he should have trouble from them. So he made a scheme to distribute them over sundry countries, and sent one of his Barons to carry this out. When the Tartars became a ware of this they took it much amiss, and with one consent they left their country and went off across a desert to a distant region towards the north, where Prester John could not get at them to annoy them. Thus they revolted from his authority and paid him tribute no longer. And so things continued for a time.”

Deer Stones and the Early Mongols

Deer stones are ancient monoliths with images of deers and other animals carved on them. They were made between 1000 and 700 B.C., around the time that people in the steppe were becoming nomadic herdsmen. Many have images of deers. Some have images of the sun and the moon. Almost always face east towards the rising sun.

There are 450 deer stones scattered across northern Mongolia, particularly in Bulgan, Khovd and Ulaangom provinces, and in southern Siberia. The tallest are about five meters tall. They have been dated based on weapons and tools some of the figures carry. Some scholars think they are be memorials, usually associated with burial mounds and horse graves. William W. Fitzhugh, directors of Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center told the Washington Post, he thinks “they’re symbolic of of powerful chiefs and warriors.”

The relationship between the Deer Stone people and other people of the steppes is not known. The lived at around the same time as the early Scythians but were not Scythians. The Scythians. also were fond of deer images but their deers were quite different that the ones seen on deer stones.

Mongolian Studies specialist Christopher Atwood of Indiana University told the Washington Post, “Most probably what you had was an attractive and charismatic package of nomadic pastrorialism and a dynamic horse culture. A small elite [of deer stone people] conquers the Scythians and then lose their language and subsequently their culture.”

Up until the emergence of Genghis Khan in the 12th century, the Mongols were little more than a loose confederation of rival clans. When they emerged Mongolia was dominated by other groups such as the Scythians from the 7th to 3rd centuries B.C., followed by the Xiongnu-Huns in the 2nd century B.C. to A.D. 2nd century, the ancient Turks from the 6th to 12th centuries, the Uighurs in the 8th century and the Kyrgyz in the 9th century.



According to Chinese historical records about 200 B.C., a warlike horse people from Mongolia called the Xiongnu (His-Ug.-nu. Hsiun-nu, or Hunnu) created a confederation of nomadic tribes of aggressive horsemen in an area along the border of China and Mongolia. In the 3rd century B.C. Xiongnu advanced on and displaced kingdoms in Western China. In the 2nd century B.C. they attacked northern China. The Great Wall of China was built to keep them out. Important Xiongnu chieftains included Tumen and Modun

The Xiongnu shot arrows from horseback and used swords and lances. They advanced as far as the Yellow River before being stopped. As part of a peace agreement with China's Han dynasty, the Xiongnu demanded tributes of silk, wine, rice, concubines and other luxuries. The transport of these goods from China to Central Asia marked the beginning large-scale use of the Silk Road.

The Xiongnu were the nemesis of the Han Dynasty Chinese. The Han built up the Great Wall and presented the Xiongnu with Han princesses as gifts but to no avail. The Xiongnu weakened the Han empire with repeated raids In 133 B.C. there was a great battle in which “the men and horses killed on the Han side amounted to over a hundred thousand.” Xiongnu in Chinese means “The State That Holds the Bows Beyond the Great Wall.”

The Xiongnu empire collapsed in the 1st century A.D. primarily because of disputes over succession. The Xianbei replaced the Xiongnu in Mongolia in the A.D. 1st century and gained enough influence that intermingled with the Han Chinese in China. The origin of the Xianbei is not known. They are thought to a mix of Turkic and Iranian clans. Xianbei in turn eclipsed by a succession of other horsemen: the Toba, Ruruan and Turks. Xiongnu sites have been excavated by archeologists in Mongolia. One site called Gua Dob is near Ulaan Baatar.

Khitan, Uighurs and Kyrgyz

A Mongolian horse clan, the Khitan (Kitan, Qidan , Khitaon), conquered much of northeast China around 900 A.D., and later built an empire that stretched from the Sea of Japan to Central Asia. Skilled artisans from conquered states, during Khitan rule, created elaborate funerary items such as yurt-shaped urns, gold burial masks, painted wooden coffins and detailed tomb guardians that incorporated Taoist, Buddhist and Shamanist elements. The Khitan frequently fought with other Mongol tribes. In the 11th century the Khitan were weakened and ultimately defeated in 1122 by the Jin dynasty of China and their allies the Jurchen (the future Manchus), who were in turn were overpowered by Genghis Khan's clan in the early 13th century.

Khitan horsemen

The Uighurs — descendants of nomads who trace their heritage back to the Uighur knanates, which ruled an area stretching from the Lake Baikal in southern Siberia to the Karakoram more than 1,000 years ago and are regarded as the first Turkic people to settle down — took control of an area in present day western Mongolia in A.D. the 8th century and left behind their ancient script, which used to write the Mongol language until the arrival of the Russians. The Uighurs helped the Tang defeat a rebellious general and put down an internal revolt. In A.D. 840 they were driven from Mongolia by the Kyrgyz.

The Kyrgyz are believed to have descended from the nomadic "Yenisey Kyrgyz," from the Yenisey River area in central Siberia. They established ties with the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) in China and were mentioned in the 8th century Orkhan inscription. They occupied their lands in what is now northwestern Mongolia until they turn were driven off these lands by the Khitan in the 10th century.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic: Genghis Khan: December, 1996; After Genghis Khan: February 1997; National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Comptom’s Encyclopedia, Lonely Planet Guides, Silk Road Foundation, "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin; "History of Arab People" by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991) and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.