Ethnogenesis of the Mongolian people and their language

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The late 13th and 14th c. portraits of the Mongol khans and their wives often show them with rather light (hazel or greenish) eyes.  For example, the 14th c. portrait of Ögedei Khan (1186-1241) clearly depicts him as having greenish blue eyes and a reddish (definitely light colored) mustache and beard.

(National Palace Museum)

In this portrait, Ögedei Khan looks like many Kirghiz I've met on the steppe and in East Central Asia (some of them are almost indistinguishable from Europeans, as are some Uyghurs).

In light of the long series of posts we've had about the importance of archeology and historical anthropology for the evolution of language, pondering these physical characteristics of the Mongol khans led me to consider their implications for the ethnogenesis of the Mongolian people and their language.  So I asked colleagues who are specialists in such matters pertaining to Mongolian what they thought.  Among the responses I received are the following:

Penglin Wang:

You have a very good observation. In my opinion, this could be a reflection of genetic hybridity of Mongoloid and Caucasoid groups in Inner Asia. I have a strong conviction that no group there is homogeneous in their genetic composition and ethnogenesis. I am not sure if anyone has specifically studied physical transfer of Sinitic population to Mongolia by the Xiongnu as repeatedly recorded in early Chinese dynastic histories. The Xiongnu needed to have human resources and thus aimed to grab outside, especially Chinese, population. Though the Xiongnu seemed ruthless on battlegrounds, they were very kind toward those Chinese individuals. When Zhang Qian (d. ca. 114 BC) was captured, he was treated nicely and was offered a marriage with a Xiongnu woman.  This aspect of Xiongnu-Han interactions merits further investigation.

Mark Bender:

I have seen many, many Han Chinese, especially in NE and SW China with hazel / yellowish irises, and a number in the SW (Yunnan) with blue-ish eyes — though it is of course hard to say what the label "HAN" can conceal.

Johan Elverskog:

It is well known that the "Mongols" were a soupçon of peoples cobbled together by Chinggis et al. And thus that some may have had "European" features – as Afghans, Kirghiz, Uighurs, Dong'an, Uzbeks, etc. do today – is probably not that surprising.

Marcel Erdal:

This certainly says a lot about their ethnogenetic features (which one should nowadays approach also with DNA analysis if their bones can be found), but I am still pretty sure one needs to decouple such information from linguistic affinity on the one hand, and from material affinity (I mean information that can be gathered through archaeology) on the other hand.    As is well known, the originally non-Turkic Kirghiz are said to have been described as red-haired and blue-eyed, much of northern Asia was Yeniseian, etc. before it became dominated by Turks and Mongols, and there were Indo-Iranians there, prior to their migrations to the South, i.e., ultimately Indo-European, not to forget the Uralic Samoyeds.

Juha Janhunen:

At least in the Minusinsk basin the dominant language was changed in the succession Samoyedic (Tagar) > Yeniseic (Tashtyk) > Turkic (the Yenisei Kirghiz of the Türk period) > Russian (after 1703). Oirat was also briefly present as a superstrate (in the 15th-17th cc.). Whether there ever was an Indo-European language (Pre-Proto-Tocharian?) before Samoyedic is uncertain, but Indo-European (both Tocharian and Iranian) was certainly spoken at various times further to the south (and there may have been Sogdian trading stations also in the Minusinsk basin). The  historical Central Asian Indo-European speakers (whose descendants now speak Turkic) do not seem to have been blond or with blue eyes, so it remains an enigma from where and when the ancient Europoid population of the region came, and what language they spoke. It could also have been Uralic. Chinggis Khan's roots were in Transbaikalia (the Onon-Argun basin), which is rather far to the east, so it is unclear whether his blue eyes could have had any western connection.

Asko Parpola:

One factor that may have contributed to genetic mixture on the elite level: In the 7th to 9th centuries, the Mongol steppes were ruled by the Uyghurs.

Xu Wenkan:

None of the northern steppe peoples, including the Xiongnu (proto-Huns), Xianbei (Särbi), Rouran (Avars), Tujue (Turks), Huihu (Uyghurs), Menggu (Mongolians), etc., consist of a single component.  In all of them there are Indo-European elements.  The admixture among the Kirghiz is especially complex.  This is born out by recent archeological and DNA research carried out in Mongolia.

It is possible that Tocharian has an Uralic substrate, but further research is necessary to confirm this.

Pamela Crossley:

The descriptions and depictions of the Mongols make clear that reddish hair and hazel or green eyes were frequently seen. You can also see this in the portraits of the returned Torghuts that the Qing displayed in the Ziguang ge 紫光閣 ("Hall of Imperial Brilliance") — some of them have outright blue eyes.

As for ethnogenesis, it only suggests to me that in the fluidity of Eurasian peoples there is very little by way of stable gene pools. That seems to be shown in the DNA studies of the Xiongnu and everybody coming after them. Koreans and a few Chinese groups (like Hakka) are also considered to have reddish hair and light eyes.    I wonder to what extent this might all be connected to the N mDNA haplogroup, which is ubiquitous across northern Asia, from Scandinavia to Siberia, with descendant lineages among Native Americans. Some Europeans, including my mother’s family, have a very large N component (in our case, we just don’t know why).

Selected readings

[Thanks to John Rohsenow]


  1. Peter B. Golden said,

    August 19, 2020 @ 2:12 pm

    This has been a most interesting thread. The DNA data show a complicated genetic picture, as now frequent postings of online journals indicate. For those not already familiar with it, the article by Joo-Yup Lee and Shuntu Kuang, "A Comparative Analysis of Chinese Historical Sources and Y-DNA Studies with Regard to the Early and Medieval Turkic Peoples" INNER ASIA 19 (2017): 197–239 will make for interesting reading.

  2. Nick Kaldis said,

    August 19, 2020 @ 2:24 pm

    What is the relationship between [comparatively more neutral?] Han descriptions of red-haired Mongols and [pejorative] descriptions for caucasians: "紅毛鬼"/"紅毛人"?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2020 @ 2:26 pm

    From Dotno Pount:

    I noticed these things too! Actually, people with green or hazel eyes are not that uncommon in Mongolia. Even within my own family, there has always been a few individuals with non-brown eye-colors. My older son’s eyes were gray at birth, but eventually became much darker after a few months.

    I have not read about this topic yet, so I don’t know what’s out there. I have heard some interesting presentations, though. First is by Leland Liu-Rogers, a former student of Prof. Atwood’s (I cannot find a reference yet — he might not have published this). He said that the DNA samples obtained from human remains in Mongolia indicate several waves of newcomers that all stayed and mixed together. The striking part that I still remember is that DNA samples surviving from the Bronze Age and before are very similar to the Caucasians. I vaguely remember references made to the mummies in Xinjiang that you studied, but I cannot recall what the connection was. The second presentation I have seen was a DNA analysis done by a team led by my sister’s mother-in-law. I think you would find their thesis very interesting because their genetic studies basically correspond to the linguistic similarities found between the ‘Altaic’ languages. I especially remember their similarity graph that shows a continuum from Mongolians to Manchu-Tungus people, to Koreans, and on the the Japanese, but a marked difference with the Han Chinese.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2020 @ 2:33 pm

    From Pamela Crossley:

    I have some longish passages on this in my recently published book, Hammer & Anvil, which frequently invokes SINO-PLATONIC PAPERS among much else of your work.

    The portraits in the Ziguang ge are attributed to Ignaz Sichelbarth, and became well known in 2012 when Sotheby’s auctioned the lot. Called "Portraits of Valour: Imperial Bannermen Portraits from a European Collection.” There was actually a catalogue published but I have never had a copy of it. A few of these can be found easily on the Internet (Ubashi, Kenze) but probably not the ones of interest to you (Zebek and a few others).

  5. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2020 @ 2:47 pm

    From Pamela Crossley:

    I don’t know about “soupçon” but I agree with what Johan is saying. Don’t see any other way to look at the Mongols except as one in a series of large Eurasian political federations engaging the usual spectrum of Eurasian DNA. Again, a very minor theme in Hammer & Anvil.

    The imposition of a uniform language is more interesting, as you say, and that goes along with certain amount of standardization of religious practice (like worship of Chinggis) and political organization. I’m not sure Mongolian ever was really a common language in the Mongol federation. Turkic languages were much more widely spoken. Mongolian script had a great effect in political display (including on coins in a few cases), and in the Yuan it was clearly used for a large amount of documentation (now lost). But Persian seems to have been more important elsewhere, and that applies to the time of Chinggis, when he began hiring Sart secretaries and bookkeepers. I think we are talking about the consolidation of a repertoire of symbols.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2020 @ 3:02 pm

    Pamela's mention of "Sart" is revelatory, since it reminds me of the Sogdian traders and caravan leaders known as sabao, the Chinese transcription of Sanskrit sārthavāha, which is also the source of "Sart":


    There are several theories about the origin of the term. It may be derived from the Sanskrit sārthavāha "merchant, trader, caravan leader", a term supposedly used by nomads to describe town-dwellers, according to Vasily Bartold, Gerard Clauson, and most recently Richard Foltz.

    The earliest known use of the term is in the 1070 Turkic text Kutadgu Bilig "Blessed Knowledge", in which it refers to the settled population of Kashgaria. Then, the term apparently referred to all settled Muslims of Central Asia, regardless of language.

    Rashid-al-Din Hamadani in the Jami' al-tawarikh writes that Genghis Khan commanded for Arslan Khan, prince of the Karluks, to be given the title "Sartaqtai", which he considered to be synonymous with Tajik.

    A 13th-century Mongolian source, The Secret History of the Mongols, states that the Mongols called people from Central Asia, most notably Khwarazm, "Sartuul". "Sar" in Mongolian means "moon" so sart or sarta would mean "ones with (flag with) moon" since the Muslims had a crescent moon symbol on their flags. One of the Mongol tribes living in Zavkhan Province, Mongolia is made up of descendants of merchants from Khwarazm who resided in Kharkhorin and is still called Sartuul.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2020 @ 3:10 pm

    From Marcel Erdal:

    Those eyes in the picture don't really look blue to me, as Northern European eyes would look, but rather greenish-light-brownish, and I wonder whether that wouldn't be O.K. for those Northern Asiatic peoples.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2020 @ 3:12 pm

    I said "greenish blue"; perhaps I should add "with a slight hazel tinge".

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2020 @ 3:15 pm

    From Juha Janhunen:

    You are right, Marcel. Probably too much attention has been paid to the "blue" eyes or "blond" hair of Chinggis and his descendants. These features can also appear due to local mutations (see below). Among modern Mongols some children are conspicuously blond and are called "shira" ('yellow'), though they tend to become darker with age. Not all of them have Russian-brought western genes.

    Do many East Asians actually have blue eyes/green eyes? – Quora

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2020 @ 3:47 pm

    People are asking me, and I wondered about it myself: what is that black mark at the corner of Ögedei's left eye? Can anyone tell us?

  11. Bathrobe said,

    August 19, 2020 @ 8:14 pm

    The best-selling novel The Green-Eyed Lama (available in English translation on Amazon) is not, as might appear, about some Western person coming to Mongolia to become a monk. It is a love story about a real-life Mongolian from the north who was one of the many killed during the years of Stalinist oppression.

    One Buryat Mongolian with greenish eyes himself once told me that green eyes are not highly regarded in Mongolia, although the appearance of the novel might conceivably have helped improve attitudes.

  12. Bathrobe said,

    August 19, 2020 @ 8:18 pm

    Shira 'yellow' (normally pronounced shar in the modern Khalkha standard) is also the term used for fair skin in Mongolia. It contrasts with the commonly found bor or brownish skin. To say that a woman has shar complexion in Mongolia is a term of praise.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2020 @ 9:28 pm

    From Nicola Di Cosmo:

    Your observation is quite right, but I am not be able to offer a solution. We need to wait until research in ancient DNA allows a proper mapping of the various haplogroups present in medieval Mongolia in order to have a better idea of the genetic changes and distribution.

  14. Brett said,

    August 20, 2020 @ 12:27 am

    It is worth pointing out that eye color is not a continuously variable quantity, but rather comes in seven discrete levels. There are three essentially identical genes governing eye color (originating as three copies of a single ancestral gene). Since everyone inherits a copy of each gene from each parent, everyone has six alleles controlling their eye color. Each allele can either code for increased melanin production or not, and eye color is determined by how many melanin-inducing alleles are present in someone's genome. The results are:

    0: light blue
    1: dark blue
    2: green/gray/hazel
    3: light brown
    4: dark brown
    5: light black
    6: dark black

    If you know what to look for, each of the discrete levels is easy to distinguish (except maybe the shades of black). For example, I have dark brown eyes, but everyone else in my immediate family with brown eyes has the lighter shade (my father, one of my brothers, and two of my kids).

    There are small individual variations between different people of course. That's what distinguishes green, gray, and hazel eyes; they have very slight (basically random) differences in total ocular melanin levels, as well as other differences in pigmentation coming from other chemicals and parts of the genome. This is also why eye color can vary a bit over time, even in adults, as the amount of melanin in the iris fluctuates a bit.

  15. Slumbery said,

    August 20, 2020 @ 12:56 am

    An article on a part of the ancient genetic aspect of this:
    "Bronze Age population dynamics and the rise of dairy pastoralism on the eastern Eurasian steppe"

    There is genetic analysis of samples from late Bronze Age Northern Mongolia (Khövsgöl province) and a few individuals had a lot of "Western Steppe" ancestry. So yes, this kind of mixing was going on even pretty deep in Mongolia, probably since after Afanasievo (although the Khövsgöl BA outliers look more like Sintashta / Andronovo in their western part).

    But from other articles later samples identified as Xiongnu look like a pretty mixed bag too.

  16. Michael Vnuk said,

    August 20, 2020 @ 6:52 am

    According to various commenters here, modern people in these areas show a range of eye and hair colour, so presumably artistic depictions and written descriptions from the past are not completely wrong.

    However, how do we know that pigment colours are stable enough over centuries to be relied upon?

    How do we know that people described colours exactly the same way as we do today, or that they were consistent among themselves? For example, I hear modern people describing jacaranda flowers as blue or indigo, when others, including me, call them purple or violet.

    How do we know that artistic depictions and written descriptions did not emphasise certain features?

  17. Victor Mair said,

    August 20, 2020 @ 7:16 am

    If we examine the eye color of all the Mongol khans and their consorts depicted in the portraits under discussion, we will note that there is a range of shades from brown and hazel to green and blue. The artists, who must have been selected with great care as the best of their time, since some came from distant places like Nepal, took extraordinary care in making these paintings. The same goes for portraits of emperors and other high-ranking individuals during the Ming and Qing dynasties, where many of the celebrated artists were from as far away as Europe.

  18. gds555 said,

    August 20, 2020 @ 8:07 am

    Given the wide spread of Yeniseian genes in Eurasia and also among the autochthonous populations of the Americas, I think it’d be fair to say that a lot of ancient peoples were dancin’ with their darlin’s to the Yenisei Waltz.

  19. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    August 20, 2020 @ 8:47 am


    People don't often realize the supreme erudition and wit required to cobble together a serviceable pun. My hat goes off to you, sir or madam. With "Yenisei Waltz" and its alliterative setup, you may just have won the Internet for today.


    I'm no dermatologist, but I'd be willing to bet that the Khan's facial spot must either be:

    (1) A port wine stain (cf. Gorbachev); or

    (2) A wart or mole that the artist discretely portrayed as a spot of uniform color and texture so as not to distract from the portrait.

  20. Nicky said,

    August 20, 2020 @ 10:02 am

    Regarding Mongolian "Shira": there is similar description in Kyrgyz. People with lighter hair and eye color are called сары/sary, which means "yellow".

  21. Victor Mair said,

    August 20, 2020 @ 10:11 am

    I want to express my personal gratitude for all the brilliant comments this post has received.

  22. gds555 said,

    August 20, 2020 @ 10:18 am

    Could the black mark be a melanoma (as its irregular shape would tend to suggest)? And if so, could a metastasis of that melanoma have been the cause of Ögedei's sudden, arguably not satisfactorily explained death at age 55, and/or of the apparent intestinal illness that preceded his death?

  23. Victor Mair said,

    August 20, 2020 @ 11:46 am

    From Thomas Barfield:

    I think it shows the older European related population associated with the Scythian/Sakas that intermixed with Mongolian types later. Since language and genetics are unrelated, the spread of Turkish particularly involved a language spread in which existing populations switched to language of a people that were much smaller in number.

    I am sure there are some DNA studies:

  24. david said,

    August 20, 2020 @ 1:17 pm

    The epicanthic folds, at the inner corners of the eyes, are absent or very slight in the portrait, which is not typical for Asians. Also it looks like the eyelid wrinkles extend about an eye width further out across the forehead, which is very rare in all peoples. Perhaps the artist was influenced by what was thought this person should look like.

    As for the black spot, its black looks different than the other black in the image. If the original is still available modern science could probably non-destructively tell if the black spot is the same age as the rest of the picture.

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    August 20, 2020 @ 1:40 pm

    I agree with David (immediately above) that the black of the black spot looks different to the other blacks in the image, but I think that that is because the spot is not intended to be black — using Adobe Photoshop CC and zooming in, I would say that it intended to be brown (outer) with grey-brown inner.

  26. Doug said,

    August 20, 2020 @ 1:55 pm

    A Google search brought me to a similar image without the spot:

    So my guess is it is a spot on the portrait, and not a feature of the subject.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    August 20, 2020 @ 4:12 pm

    To see the extraordinary parallel portrait (and some others) cited by Doug, you need to copy the entire URL and paste it into your browser.

  28. Anna said,

    August 20, 2020 @ 8:29 pm

    The black mark looks like an accidental ink stain. It's fuzzy and in no way jibes with the finely drawn wrinkles.

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