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Barbarian Europe

The Origins of the Huns

Refuting the pan-Turkic argument regarding the Hun tribes.
Edited from conversations with Kemal Cemal, Turkey, 1 November 2002. Revised 21 April 2022

Editor's Note: When it was published in 2002 the subject of this article was somewhat controversial, and is even more so with hindsight. The views expressed here are the author's own, but they have been tempered where possible with historical reality. For a fully accurate portrayal of the Huns please see the king list page via the sidebar links.

Although the Huns are thought by the majority of scholars to have been proto-Mongolian emigrants, the opninion being put forward here is that they were of Turkic origin. This point has been repeated by a number of (isolated) historians, sinologists, turcologists, altaistics, and other researchers, but perhaps some background can be presented to show how this idea began with Sinology researchers.

Sinology research in Europe

While the Mongol empire was in the ascendancy, the power of the Catholic Church seemed to be fading, and the power of the pope was somewhat shaky.

At the same time, the Mongols opened up eastern roads for travel, and the pope decided that there were now so many evident non-Christians that his power in the west was under severe threat. If he could convert these non-Christians then perhaps he could regain power. As a result, Jesuit missionaries started to head east.

Before working to spread Christianity, they researched Chinese beliefs. They examined Chinese history and philosophy. There were some missioners who stayed in China for twenty or thirty years, and who built up healthy relations with Chinese scholars. They also started to translate Chinese books - both about history and philosophy - into western languages.

The first translations were made into Portuguese. Then this was translated into other languages, whether Spanish, Italian, or French. The west began to learn about China from these Jesuit missionaries.

The word 'sin' is the Latin term for 'China', while 'sinology' refers to the 'sciences of China'. Sinology mainly began with these translations in the sixteenth century, and Turkic history became part of this study.

The approach of the Huns into Central Europe spread terror and fear, and not without good reason as their unfamiliar battle tactics defeated opponent after opponent

Later on the number of Sinology studies increased, with many travellers from the west heading into China. The work of de Guinness in the eighteenth century is accepted as being one of the more important collected studies when it comes to Turkic history. De Guinness did not know the Chinese language. Instead he wrote the history of the Turks, Mongols, and Tartars by using Jesuit missionary translations. His work was printed under the title General History of Turks, Tatars, and Mongols.

All of the information which had been obtained up to this point by the researchers revealed (highly debatably) that the Huns were of Turkic origin. Nearly all of today's knowledge about the Huns was gathered together in this period, from information which had been left behind by the contemporary neighbours of the pre-migration Huns.

Admittedly, the direct links between the Huns of the west and their supposed presence in the east can be somewhat tenuous, especially given the translation and language differences involved. Additionally, the Huns appeared almost a millennium before the rise of the Mongols so, at best, the Huns can be labelled as proto-Mongolians.

However, an example which could be used to show (to an extent) that the language of the Huns was Turkic is apparently available in Chinese annals (if the subject of Chinese annals is indeed the same as the Huns themselves - still debatable).

This example reveals that the Hunnic language was very close to that of the Töles, who themselves are presumed to be a Turkic tribe. It is important to note, though, that the definition of what was Turkic is highly uncertain for any groups prior to the sixth century rise of the Göktürks and the first truly Turkic state. Many earlier peoples exhibit traits which link them to Indo-Iranians, early Turks, and Mongolians, either individually or simultaneously.

The Byzantine empire stated that the language of the Huns was the same as the languages of the Bulgars (early or proto-Turks), Avars (uncertain but probably Turks), Szeklers (who were descended from the European Huns themselves), and other tribes which were currently flooding into Eastern Europe from Central Asia.

Map of Eastern Europe AD 450-500
Soon after the middle of the fifth century AD the Hunnic empire crashed into extinction, starting with the death of Attila in 453. His son and successor, Ellac, was killed in battle in 454, and the Huns were defeated by the Ostrogoths in 456, ending Hunnic unity (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The historians of that period accepted that these Turkic-speaking tribes were no different from the Huns because their languages were the same. A generalisation at best.

There are many words which have been written in Chinese chronicles which were used by Huns in daily life. These have been claimed by some to be Turkic words, although it is much more likely that they were common words to proto-Turks and Mongolians alike.

K Shiratoriy, in reading a Hunnic sentence which has survived into the present day, has 'proven' that it is Turkic. Hunnic runic writings which were placed by European Huns in regions around the Caucasus have been read and these writings have been 'proven' to be of Turkic origin. Again, such a statement is likely to be highly debatable. It is much more likely that one of their subject groups - many of which were proto-Turkic speakers - left the writings behind.

One area which has been claimed as providing a degree of back-up to the claim that the Huns were Turkic, not Mongolian, is that of Hunnic names.

It is difficult to explain those names which were held by Asian Huns due to fact that they were translated into Chinese in the form of Chinese names. However, apparently, the meanings behind the names of European Huns can comfortably be explained in terms of Turkic languages.

One of the most striking features which can also apparently be related to European Hunnic names is that they cannot be explained by anything other than Turkic languages.

Some of the names belonged to the German language due to cultural interaction with the previously dominant Goths, but the majority of them were, it is claimed, Turkic, despite no firm Turkic cultural or linguistic basis having yet been formed (this was around three hundred years prior to the rise of the Göktürks, the first truly Turkic power).

Hunnic nomad warrior
This illustration shows a horse-borne Hun killing an Eastern Roman soldier although, even though they were direct successors of the Hunnic empire and were initially led by Huns, the Kutrigurs and Utigurs were more probably of Turkic descent

Some of the features can be explained as follows:

(a famous hunnic leader) Balamir = Bala (child) + Mir (king)

(the son of Attila) Dengizik = 'sea storm'

(a general) Oniki, known to Europeans as Onegesios = the number twelve

(the son of Attila) Csaba = 'shepherd'

(a Hunnic leader) Atakam = Ata (grandfather, father), Kam = the person who is responsible for the religious rituals (in shamanism)

Eskam = Es = couple + Kam = (as above)

Aybars = Ay = moon (and also the colour white in Turkish) + Bars (or Pars) = leopard, or a wild animal

The author W Bang has provided proof as a result of his research that the name of Attila's wife was Arikan in Turkic languages. However, this does nothing to confirm that the Huns themselves were Turkic, merely that Attila picked a wife from one of the proto-Turkic groups which were at his command.

Some Hunnic words







* Tengri also means 'heaven' in Mongolian.

At best this list shows that the proto-Turks and Huns shared a common basis in terms of parts of their language. But it does not confirm that the proto-Mongolian Huns were themselves (proto) Turkic-speakers.

The problem with this list is that 'mother' and 'father' are not there - two of the oldest labels in human speech. Even 'girl' and 'woman' can be adapted to slang usage, or be adopted from another language, but those two words are core parts of any language. What is the core language of the Huns? That cannot be stated because the two most important core words are missing.

However, there are many names and captions which belong to Hunnic leaders which were written down in a document at Duro-Eropas, a border castle in Doma which was captured by the Persians in 260 BC.

These names and captions have been claimed as being Turkic names and captions, although the date is a good four-to-six hundred years too early even for proto-Turkic groups to have been found this far to the west of the Altai Mountains where Turkic languages first developed. They are far more likely to have been Indo-Iranian names from the Scythians, with Indo-Iranians later playing their part in the formation of the proto-Turks and probably transferring some names and words to them at the same time.

Aramaic writing in present-day Georgia appeared in the period following Hunnic penetration into the Caucasus. This writing was also, potentially, used by the Bulgars. It has been claimed by some strands of scholarship that this was proto-Turkic and that it appeared prior to the appearance of the Orkhun inscriptions in Mongolia (even though the nearby Altai Mountain region has been fixed as the area in which the earliest proto-Turkic people developed - see for example the Wusun, via the sidebar).

A book which was written by Gyula Nemeth, a well known Hungarian historian, is recommended for further reading on this subject, and will greatly expand upon this short feature in terms of attempting to prove the discredited Hunnic-Turkic connection.

There are many Turkology institutes which study on the origins of the Turks in many European countries, from Denmark and Germany to Russia and Japan. All of these contain a great number of resources regarding the origin of the Huns.

As stated, many sources claim the Huns were of Mongol origin, since European Huns were somewhat mongoloid in appearance. However, to further confuse an already-confused issue, some historians also accept Turks as Mongols. This author regards all of these views to be somewhat back-to-front. The Chinese annals state that the Mongols always lived to the east of the lands in which the Huns dwelt.

The Mongols have been claimed to have originated from what is now known as Manchuria (inaccurately, as this was the formation zone for the East Asians and their direct offshoot, the Koreans. The Mongolians, meanwhile originated much later, and to the north of this region).

Korean comb-pattern pottery
This comb-pattern container with its pointy base was discovered in Amsa-dong, Seoul, a representative historic site of the Korean Neolithic period which took place in East Asia

Khan Kubrat

Khan Kubrat was the first Bulgar leader to begin to unify the Bulgars in the seventh century, but the Bulgars, while being shown as proto-Turks, also shared the general Indo-Iranian admixture which was exhibited by many of the proto-Turkic tribes on the Pontic-Caspian steppe in the sixth and seventh centuries.

The Mongol empire was based on Turkic elements rather than Mongol elements (to a degree this claim is accurate, but because Turkic elements had developed ahead of Mongolian ones, and had spread more widely and influentially. Most of the peoples who were conquered by the emerging Mongols were Turkic speakers. However, claims of Turkic influence on the Mongol empire do nothing to support a claim that the Huns of a millennium earlier were Turkic speakers).

The governing structure of the Mongol empire is claimed to have been based on Turkic ideas of governance. The official language of the Mongol empire was Uigrian, not a Turkic language, but often claimed as being one in obsolete arguments. Eighteen Turkic tribes are claimed to have played an important role in the empire's founding, and there are many other claims of examples which can help to show the effects of Turkic elements on the foundation of the Mongol empire.

For example, India's Mughal empire was established in the sixteenth century by a descendant of Turks. Many scholars still hold the belief that the Mughals were of Mongol origin. The truth is that the language of the Mughals is claimed by some to have been Turkic, and that those tribes which played such an important role in founding this empire were proud of being Turkic (which simply means that the tribes were Turkic, not that they were part of the ethnic Mongol ruling elite of the Mongol empire).

Many researchers will state that the Huns were a people whose origin is still shrouded in mystery, which is actually the case although there does exist a mainstream 'most-probable' scenario. Online bibliographies will often state the work of historians such as McGovern and Haelfen-Manchen who support this view, but these websites don't always make it clear that these authors are claimed to have already accepted the Huns as being of a Turkic (or partial Turkic) origin. They were not, of course, but the lines between what was an Indo-Iranian, a Turk, or a Mongol were highly blurred until relatively recently.

Haelfen-Manchen has apparently accepted that Asiatic Huns were of Turkic origin, stating that their language was also Turkic (but see above for details about the Turkic languages being a somewhat movable feast at the time of the Huns). However, he raises an objection by adding that, in his view, European Huns are not descended from Asiatic Huns.

Hunnic descendants

The word 'Hun' would seem to have originated from the Turkic word 'kun'. It means 'people', or 'nation'. A few scholars seem to accept or claim that the Bulgars were descendants of the Huns - mistakenly, as the Bulgars were one of many tribes which exhibited Turkic ethnic affiliations at a time at which a great many proto-Turkic tribes were migrating westwards along the Pontic-Caspian steppe, from the Altai Mountains towards today's Ukraine.

Altai Mountains
The Altai Mountains link together the borders of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, and Xinjiang, providing the source for the rivers Irtysh and Ob and also, it would seem, the source region for the early Turkic tribes

One of the key founding figures of the Bulgars is Khan Kobrat. He has been claimed as being the son of Irnek, but this opens a can of worms regarding entirely unproven direct links to the Huns and Attila.

Bulgar familial connections with the Huns are extremely dubious. By the time the Bulgars were on the rise it was the Avars who were dominant, not the Huns (see the Bulgar page for a far more detailed insight into possible tribal relations).

It has also been claimed - entirely falsely - that the Magyars (Hungarians) are descendants of the Huns (although Pannonia - Hungary - did contain some Huns, plus the aforementioned Avars, and many others). The old claim that the Magyars consisted of six amalgamated Turkic tribes and one other Turkic tribe is a common fallacy which has largely been disproved (see the Magyar entry for details).

Magyars and Bulgars were seemingly accepted by the Byzantines as being of Turkic origin, although they did generally tend to lump together all of the barbarians of the northern Pontic steppe into one general category. In the end, all of the Turkic or proto-Turkic tribes of the regions between modern Hungary and southern Russia were absorbed into later political entities, even though some - such as the Tartars - still preserve a semblance of cultural and ethnic identity.



Original text copyright © Kemal Cemal, with editing and corrections by Edward Dawson & P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.