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Climate change may have made Attila and his Huns, feared raiders of the Roman Empire: Cambridge research

Climate fluctuations could have caused the Huns to migrate and change from herders to raiders as a strategy to mitigate climate risks

Attila and his Hunnic hordes may have become feared raiders of the Roman Empire in the fifth century Common Era (CE) due to climate change, new research by the University of Cambridge has postulated.

Susanne Hakenbeck, associate professor from Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology and Ulf Büntgen from the university’s Department of Geography, reached the conclusion on the basis of their study of tree rings as well as historical texts and archaeological findings, according to a statement by the university December 15, 2022.

The new findings could do a lot to change the popular perception of the Huns, where they are considered to be ferocious and rapacious ‘beasts’, with a lust for gold.

The researchers have hypothesised that climate fluctuations could have caused the Huns to migrate and change from herders to raiders as a strategy to mitigate climate risks.

The Huns are thought to have crossed the Volga, Europe’s longest river in 370 CE according to historical sources of the time.

“In the following 50 years, the Huns likely first settled in Muntenia in Romania, on the lower Danube, before establishing themselves on the Great Hungarian Plain, east of the Danube,” the paper noted.

In the first three decades of the fifth century, the Huns started to raid the frontier of the Roman Empire. These attacks intensified in the 430s and later years, when Attila became their leader.

“The Huns increasingly demanded gold payments and eventually a strip of Roman territory along the Danube. In 451 CE, the Huns invaded Gaul and a year later they invaded northern Italy,” the university statement noted.

In 422, 442 and 447 CE, the Huns attacked the frontier Roman provinces of Thrace and Illyricum.

In 453 CE, Attila died under mysterious circumstances. Thereafter, the Huns disappeared from central Europe, where they had caused such mayhem and from the pages of history, to be reviled to this day.

‘Drought, the reason’

Büntgen and colleagues studied tree rings to reconstruct data about yearly changes in climate over the last 2,000 years.

It showed that Hungary experienced episodes of unusually dry summers in the fourth and fifth centuries CE.

The paper said:

A close-up perspective on the years 350 to 500 CE also shows increasingly dry summers after the 420s CE. The period from 430 CE up to Attila’s death in 453 CE included several extremely dry summers. This was followed by a century of drier-than-average summers, before renewed drought episodes in the second half of the 6th century.

This, both experts said, would have reduced crop yields and pasture for animals beyond the floodplains of the Danube and Tisza rivers.

The Huns and other peoples in the region responded to the changes by migrating and by mixing agricultural and pastoral diets.

Hackenbeck and others proved the latter by doing an isotope analysis on skeletons from five cemeteries dating from the 5th century. Four cemeteries were located within what was once the (settled) province of Pannonia and one was on the banks of the river Tisza, in the Great Hungarian Plain (mostly steppe land).

The experts also compared their findings with data from early medieval settled farmers from southern Germany and mobile pastoralists from the central Asian steppes.

They found that the people in the area (the Carpathian Basin) had diets which had slightly higher animal protein than the farmers of Germany but less than the pastoralists of central Asia.

In other words, as summers started getting hotter and drier from 420 CE, the Huns may have responded by migrating into Roman territory and accepting agro-based products into their mostly nomadic, pastoral diet.

But the drought may have also changed the military and political organisation of the Huns as well.

“Historical sources tell us that Roman and Hun diplomacy was extremely complex,” Hakenbeck was quoted as saying in the statement.

“Initially it involved mutually beneficial arrangements, resulting in Hun elites gaining access to vast amounts of gold. This system of collaboration broke down in the 440s, leading to regular raids of Roman lands and increasing demands for gold,” she added.

That breakdown could have been due to the change in climate. The experts cited the example of livestock raiding and violence among pastoralists in the Turkana District of Kenya.

Hackenbeck and Büntgen said in Kenya, people opportunistically raided livestock during wet months, since the animals were healthier and vegetation provided cover for the raiders.

“However, when the rains fail and resources become very scarce, they carry out raids to compensate for livestock losses or to gain control over pastures,” the study said.

The authors postulated that the increasingly dry summers from the 420s to 450s may have disrupted the earlier economic organisation of the incomers from the steppes who formed the core of the Hunnic elites.

“This climate-induced economic disruption may also have changed Hunnic social organization, requiring Attila and others of high rank to extract a supply of gold from the Roman provinces that was probably used to keep war bands and to assure inter-elite loyalties,” according to the study.

The Hunnic raids on the provinces of Thrace and Illyricum could have been to acquire food and livestock according to the authors, though they said there was no concrete evidence for this.

The document added that even Attila’s demand for an extensive strip of land along the Danube could “perhaps be seen as a mitigation strategy, since land in the floodplain would have offered better grazing in a time of drought”.

The role of drought during the Hunnic incursions into central-east Europe in the 4th and 5th c. CE was published in the Journal of Roman Archaeology.

Watch: Climate change may have ended these 10 civilisations

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