He may be among the most significant figures in history, but Genghis Khan is still something of an enigma today. As the head of one of the most vast empires of all time, his influence through the ages is undeniable. Yet there are still so many questions regarding this man. In fact, academics have long been split on one point in particular.
But in June 2020 a new paper was published that appears to have put this argument to rest. Appearing in the Archaeological Research in Asia journal, this study was headed up by Dr. Jack Fenner. An archaeologist associated with the Australian National University (ANU), Dr. Fenner’s approach is notable for its focus on chemistry.
The location of Dr. Fenner’s study was an historic site in Mongolia, a place known as Avraga. The academic was drawn to this area thanks to the work of one of his Japanese peers, fellow archaeologist Noriyuki Shiraishi. It was Shiraishi, in fact, who initially argued there was a special link between the location and Genghis.
For several years, the Avraga site had been subject to archaeological excavations from a team with members from both Mongolia and Japan. And these investigations were rather fruitful, with discoveries such as the remains of animals being found there. This might not sound like much to many of us, but for an archaeologist these findings were groundbreaking.
Making use of modern carbon-dating techniques, Fenner and his colleagues analyzed these old bones. In doing so, the team appeared to confirm the suspicions of Shiraishi. That is, it seems that Avraga was once a place closely linked to the leader of one the greatest empires on Earth.
There’s no question that Genghis’ legacy has endured, yet there aren’t too many historical sources that discuss his earlier years. In fact, the majority of information regarding his youth has been extracted from The Secret History of the Mongols. Put together shortly after the leader’s passing, this text is the earliest recognized account of Mongolia and its history.
Based on the sources that do exist, we can say that Genghis was once known by a different name. Born in 1162 or thereabouts, he was originally called Temujin. The circumstances of his origins, sadly, were rather grim. It seems that Temujin’s father had abducted his mother and coerced her into marriage.
As a child, Temujin was exposed to terrible violence. At this point, you see, the part of central Asia in which he lived was controlled by various nomadic groups. These clans were perpetually at war, meaning life was extremely uncertain. Before he was a teenager, in fact, Temujin’s father was killed. His tribe then abandoned him, his siblings and his mother because they didn’t want to provide them with food.
Not long after this, a family feud broke out and Temujin slaughtered his half-brother. This sibling had been older, so Temujin now took over as the leader of the family. Things didn’t get any easier, though, and at one point he was even forced into slavery by his former tribe. But ultimately he managed to break away.
Temujin is said to have married a woman called Borte in 1178. The couple had a number of children together, four of whom were boys. It’s uncertain how many of these kids had been girls. In one typically brutal turn of events, Temujin’s wife was abducted; enraged, he fought tooth and nail to get her back. In doing so, he started to gain notoriety as being fearsome in combat.
As more and more people started to support Temujin, he began to delegate responsibilities. In an unusual move for the time, he placed people into prominent roles based on merit, rather than because of any familial ties. He managed his followers effectively, taking in new members from enemy clans that he’d overcome.
Temujin and his followers fought through the region, defeating all the groups that opposed them. By the year 1205 Temujin’s authority was unchallenged, and so he set about founding a unified nation. He was given the title of Chinggis Khan, a term whose closest equivalent in English is “Universal Ruler.” To the people of the West, of course, this has become Genghis Khan.
With roughly a million people now under his control, Genghis sought to stamp out infighting within his domain. So, he outlawed activities that might have sparked tribal conflict. Slavery of any Mongol individual was prohibited, as was the kidnapping of female members of the society. A person could be executed if they stole farm animals. And on top of all this, the leader installed a system of writing and permitted religious freedom.
Eventually, Genghis looked beyond the boundaries of Mongolia. He organized a number of small excursions into the nearby Xi Xia kingdom, before undertaking a wider invasion in 1209. The Mongols conquered Xi Xia, later turning their attention to more lands around the region. Over a number of years, the ruler conquered a huge expanse of territory and created the Mongol Empire.
By 1225 the Mongol Empire straddled an entire continent, stretching from the Caspian Sea in the west to the Sea of Japan in the east. But Genghis wasn’t content to take things easy. He once again turned his attention to Xi Xia, as this territory had failed to provide the emperor with soldiers for a Mongol excursion elsewhere.
At the beginning of 1227 Genghis was leading his troops into Xi Xia once more. But during this operation, the leader fell from his horse. Despite being seriously injured, he decided to fight on. He never made a proper recovery, though, and by the end of that summer, he was gravely ill. On August 18, 1227, the great Mongol ruler passed away.
In his own lifetime, Genghis acquired vast swathes of territory; so much, in fact, that he more-or-less single-handedly introduced Eastern civilization to the West. But the Mongol Empire didn’t end with his demise. In fact, Genghis’ heirs extended Mongol control even further. It was only in the 14th century that the empire disintegrated.
Though the historical sources we have today are by no means extensive, a certain picture of Genghis has emerged. It seems that he was a complicated fellow, with many different sides evident in his character. On the one hand he was strong and stubborn, but he was also said to take people’s advice on board.
Of course, Genghis is infamous for the brutality of his military campaigns. He was a vengeful individual, and his troops massacred many people. In fact, it seems that mass murder was a systematic strategy undertaken by the Mongols in order to instill terror into populations that didn’t fall into line.
The savagery of Genghis even expressed itself after his death. You see, the leader had ordered that the location of his grave should stay a total secret. So, when he passed away and his remains were being transported back to Mongolia, his troops murdered anybody they encountered. They then laid him to rest somewhere, before apparently forcing 1,000 horses to traipse over the burial site. With that, the spot was totally obscured.
Today, some eight centuries after Genghis died, people are still looking for the historic leader’s grave. But the thing is, it tends to be foreigners that are so obsessed with finding this place. People who are actually from Mongolia are generally quite reluctant for the site to be discovered.
This isn’t to suggest that Genghis is of little importance to people in modern Mongolia. His likeness, after all, can still be seen on the country’s currency and on a brand of vodka. If anything, then, Mongolians still revere the man. So, why are they so against finding his grave?
Well, as one young woman from Mongolia explained to the BBC for a 2017 article, it simply has to do with adhering to the leader’s wishes. Genghis was clear that his remains were to remain hidden. To ignore this order and to actively search for the grave, then, would be disrespectful.
But even aside from questions of reverence, there are plenty of reasons why finding Genghis’ grave has proved so difficult. The most obvious is that the modern nation of Mongolia is absolutely enormous. And more than that, it’s extremely rural. It has a relatively small and widely-dispersed population and a road network that’s little more than embryonic.
Despite the challenges of finding Genghis’s resting place, though, rumors about its location have circulated through the centuries. One theory has it that the emperor was buried somewhere in the Khentii Mountains, a range situated in the north of modern Mongolia. There’s a certain amount of anecdotal evidence that suggests this could be true, but academics have never settled the point.
Dr. Sodnom Tsolmon, for example, is a history professor from Ulaanbaatar State University who specializes in 13th-century Mongolia. Speaking to BBC in 2017 of the rumors that the Khentii Mountains might bear Genghis’ remains, Dr. Tsolmon said, “It is a sacred mountain. It doesn’t mean he’s buried there.”
The mystery of Genghis’ burial site isn’t the only thing that’s split scholars in contemporary times. Another point of contention has been the question of where the emperor hunkered down for his winters. This place would have been important, because it’s from here that he would have plotted his many incursions into foreign lands.
After a long period of debate, though, it seems that historians now have an answer to this particular question. And that’s down to Dr. Fenner and his colleagues from the ANU. These people have finally offered convincing proof that Genghis’s winter home was at Avraga, which lies in eastern Mongolia.
Encouraged to investigate Avraga by the previous research of Shiraishi, Dr. Fenner and his team soon got to work. Utilizing carbon-dating techniques, the researchers properly analyzed some animal bones that had been excavated at the site. In doing so, they discovered that Avraga had likely been inhabited while Genghis had been alive.
It’s been pointed out, though, that carbon dating isn’t necessarily the most accurate of techniques. In fact, Dr. Fenner himself has acknowledged that the conclusions of such an analysis could be several decades off the mark. That’s because changes in the levels of carbon in the atmosphere over the centuries could skew the results.
But as Dr. Fenner explained to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in July 2020, there were measures his team took to account for this change in carbon. He said, “What we did was take a series of radiocarbon dates from the same situation. And then we were able to use a statistical tool that allows us to project when the site as a whole – or at least the site as represented by our dates – was first occupied and then later abandoned.”
Having completed this task, the researchers then considered the likelihood that certain spots in Avraga would have been occupied at the time of Genghis. This was all promising stuff, but Dr. Fenner himself has readily admitted that more investigations will be required. After all, nobody has yet found an artifact on the site that can be unequivocally connected to the emperor.
Despite the gaps in the evidence, Dr. Fenner’s work has been praised by historians. A statement by ANU historian Dr. Li Narangoa read, “This was the camp where [Genghis] started his campaign against his southern neighbors and Dr. Fenner and his team’s work support[s] this. It’s a great contribution to historical research.”
For some people, a particularly interesting aspect of Dr. Fenner’s work has been its focus on food. You see, the animal bones excavated from Avraga seem to disprove a certain theory about the Mongol Empire. According to this line of thinking, the empire was driven to expansion in search of the millet crop, which was supposedly at the heart of the Mongolian people’s diet.
Dr. Fenner dismissed this notion in a statement. He said, “We found that aridity affecting the food sources of the Mongols is behind what we’re seeing in the bones, rather than a change in what they ate to include millet. We’ve determined that the elites in Mongol society ate roughly the same diet as the commoners – mainly meat and animal products – despite having access to a variety of foods.”
Basically, then, Dr. Fenner’s work has indicated that whatever the motivation behind Genghis’ expansionist instincts, it wasn’t a search for more millet. And more than that, the research has also shed light on the practice of animal herding in the region. Speaking to the ABC, the University of Aberdeen’s Dr. Joshua Wright explained further.
According to Dr. Wright, “Herding is an important part of the modern and past economies of Mongolia. And reconstructing the skills and choices of historical herders really gives us insight into daily lives of people in the past. People who, in this case, lived and worked in proximity to the rulers of the Mongol empire.”
A whole host of historians and archaeologists from around the world have taken note of Dr. Fenner’s work. Dr. William Taylor, for example, is associated with the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. And he, too, is excited by the research. Speaking to the ABC, he said, “I think they’ve made quite a compelling argument that the site and the main burst of activity here lines up very closely with what we would expect if this were fitting into the life and known trajectory of [Genghis].”
Dr. Taylor went on to discuss the significance of Genghis today, some eight centuries after he lost his life. At a personal level, the professor pointed out, he was a fascinating figure in his own right. But speaking more broadly, as Dr. Taylor said, “A lot of the world that we live in today was dramatically shaped by the development of the Mongol Empire.”
Genghis is widely known for his brutality and the lands that he conquered. But in Mongolia, he’s known for bringing a degree of civility to previously barbarian lands. Many of the rules he enforced across his empire, in fact, are reflected in ways of life today. He will, then, remain a source of historic interest for generations to come.