I don’t yet have the genomes from the recent Ning et al. paper on the Iron Age nomads from the Shirenzigou site in the eastern Tian Shan. But I do have most of the previously published data featured in the paper, including the Damgaard et al. 2018 Hun and Saka samples from the western Tian Shan.
After reading the Ning et al. paper between the lines and running a few analyses of my own, it’s clear to me that most of the supposedly Tocharian-related Shirenzigou individuals actually share a very close relationship with the Tian Shan Huns, and indeed may have been their ancestors.
For instance, Ning et al. found that a large part of the ancestry of the Shirenzigou ancients could be modeled with the Tian Shan Huns, which was an anachronistic approach because the former are older than the latter. They also found that Ulchi-related ancestry was a key part of the genetic structure of eight out of the ten Shirenzigou individuals, and this likewise appears to be an important part of the genetic structure of the Tian Shan Huns.
Note the strong statistical fits in the Global25/nMonte and qpAdm mixture models below, respectively, which characterize these Huns as a two-way mixture between the Ulchi and the earlier Tian Shan Saka. Also keep in mind that the Saka too have significant Ulchi-related ancestry.
tail prob 0.992464
Moreover, the Shirenzigou males belong to Y-haplogroups Q1a and R1b (two instances of each), and they share the latter with one of the Tian Shan Huns. The Y-haplogroup assignments for the other Tian Shan Huns end at R and R1, but that’s almost certainly due to missing data.
On the other hand, two Tian Shan Sakas belong to Y-haplogroup R1a but none to R1b, which fits with the pattern from currently available ancient DNA that R1a was more common than R1b in Saka-related groups, such as the Scythians and Sarmatians (see here).
This is all very interesting, because the Huns replaced the Saka in the western Tian Shan, and, considering their R1b and excess Ulchi-related ancestry, very likely moved into the region from the direction of Shirenzigou. Indeed, in my opinion a strong argument can now be made that the Iron Age population from the Shirenzigou region was likely to have taken part in the formation of the Hunnic confederacy.
So where does that leave the theory presented by Ning et al. that the Shirenzigou ancients may have been closely related, and perhaps even ancestral, to the Tocharians, simply because they packed a lot of Yamnaya-related and possibly proto-Tocharian Afanasievo ancestry, and were living close to the Tarim Basin, where Tocharian languages were subsequently first attested?
I’m not sure, but I now find it difficult to reconcile this theory with the fact that they were closely related, and probably ancestral, to the Huns. As far as I’m aware, the Huns cannot be linked to the Tocharians in any meaningful way.
Of course it’s possible that different Afanasievo/Yamnaya-related groups were living in the Tarim Basin and surrounds, and, as some merged with new populations pushing into the region from the east and adopted non-Indo-European languages, others retained their Tocharian speech and eventually split into communities speaking Tocharian A, B and apparently also C (see here).
But this has to be demonstrated directly with ancient DNA from archeological sites where Tocharian languages were attested. Till then, I’ll keep thinking that Ning et al. wrote a paper about Tocharians that really should’ve been a paper about Huns.
Here’s a famous wall painting of Tocharian princes from the cave of the sixteen sword-bearers in the Tarim Basin, dated to 432–538 AD. They don’t look like guys with a lot of Ulchi-related admixture to me, but I might be wrong. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below.
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