Due to the scarcity of written sources the origin of Hungarians has been the object of passionate debate among historians, archeologists, and linguists. Lately they were joined by geneticists. With the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, genetic mapping of ethnic groups became much easier, cheaper and therefore more widely carried out. István Raskó, head of a group of geneticists at the University of Szeged, gave his first lecture on the subject in the popular "Mindentudás Egyeteme" (University of All Knowledge) in 2004. He outlined the group's research on the DNA composition of human remains from graves dating to the early tenth century. On the basis of their findings the Szeged reseachers came to the conclusion that the number of invaders was most likely very small because even in these very early graves only 36% of the people had markers indicating Asiatic origin. Fifty percent of them were of purely European origin, and their DNA composition indicated that their ancestors had lived in Europe for at least 40-50,000 years. By now this Asiatic element has almost disappeared: 84% of Hungarians are totally of European origin and only 16% carry Asiatic markers. One ought to keep in mind that in the thirteenth century the Cumans, a decidedly Asiatic tribe, fleeing the Mongol onslaught, sought refuge in Hungary. The Cumans (or in Hungarian the "kunok") settled in one bloc south of Budapest on the left bank of the Danube, that is, the Great Plains. Their opportunity to intermarry with non-Cumans was somewhat limited. Even in the second half of the twentieth century one could find Hungarians who bore a close resemblance to their Asiatic relatives.
The occasion for the topic surfacing in the popular press is an exhibition that just opened in the Museum of Natural Science. It is entitled "The Genetic Family Tree of Our People." The exhibit relies heavily on the research of István Raskó and his fellow scientists in Szeged. As a result of their research there are many new discoveries and also the "reaffirmation" of earlier held views. About a hundred years ago it was commonly believed that the richer graves contained the remains of the newcomers who ruled over the local Slavic population while the simpler graves contained the bones of the local common people. That theory was replaced in the 1950s by one that claimed that even in the simplest graves less well-off Asiatic newcomers could be found. Now DNA research has at last put an end to the debate. The DNA found in the modest graves is practically identical to the make-up of the present-day Hungarian population. In brief, the earlier theory was correct. Moreover this research offers further proof that the newcomers were very few in number.
I must say that this finding surprised me because I, simply using common sense, figured that if the size of the invading group was very small and the population of the occupied territories large then it would be logical to assume that the invaders would soon be absorbed by the local population. Moreover, I figured, their language would be supplanted for the most part by that of the locals. Anyone who was thinking along these lines was obviously wrong. For some strange reason the linguistic and cultural influence of this small group was important beyond its size while their genetic components pretty well disappeared.
And that leads us to the linguistic debate. As you most likely know by now, the Hungarian extreme right is very dissatisfied with the universally held belief in the Finno-Ugric linguistic relationship. The Szeged group's findings prove that Finns, Estonians, and Hungarians are related even genetically. Although this genetic relationship cannot be established by examining the present populations, the study of the contents of the richer tenth-century graves without exception showed a close relationship with the Finno-Ugric groups (based on an analysis of their Y-chromosomes).
It is most likely that by the end of the thirteenth century the Asian markers pretty well disappeared from the population mix. However, in order to pinpoint the exact development of the population, the geneticists would have to expand the research to later centuries. I'm pretty sure that this will be the next step taken in Szeged.
Meanwhile there are other anthropological studies dealing with the same period. There is in fact a group of twenty-two researchers from various disciplines (Magyar Őstörténeti Munkaközösség Egyesület = Association of Hungarian Preshistory Workshop) who pool resources. Although the members seem to be bona fide researchers, I'm a bit troubled by the fact that their findings are so enthusiastically welcomed in far-right circles. In any case, I will summarize an earlier lecture of one of its members, Erzsébet Fóthi, who works in the Museum of Natural Sciences where the exhibit outlining the family tree of Hungarians is currently on display. The Workshop held a conference in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 2004 where several people gave lectures. Although they might have been engaging, in comparison to DNA studies a lecture on the similarities of Hungarian and Caucasian cooking sounds a tad unscientific to me. I'm equally dubious about the activities of the organizer of the group, István Erdélyi, whose list of publications is a mile long but whose studies of Hun-Hungarian relations are not terribly convincing.
According to the description of the conference the most interesting lecture was delivered by Erzsébet Fóthi using "anthropological-statistical analysis" of graves from the tenth century. According to her in the "rich graves" the shape of the skulls was different from the skulls found in the poor graves. In the former the skulls were "short and wide" while in the latter the skulls were "long and narrow." According to Ms Fóthi the "short and wide" skulls are typical of people living in the East, perhaps as far away as Siberia. The "long and narrow" skulls cannot be found farther east than the Black Sea. She checked the skulls of 475 males and 374 females. Apparently she managed to identify the first-generation skulls, that is skulls belonging to people who were not born in the Carpathian Basin and in this group she could not find "long and narrow" skulls. According to her this skull type shows great similarity to the "early Bulgarians who lived in Magna Hungaria, or in other words, in today's Bashkiria." Apparently these early Bulgarians began their journey from the northern shores of the Black Sea. Some of them went to the area of the Lower Danube and became mixed with the Slavs living there. These people are the ancestors of our Bulgarians of today. The second group, according to her, moved to Magna Hungaria, today's Bashkiria. She claims that the early Hungarian upper class's anthropological measurements show a great deal of similarity to the people of today's Bashkiria. Well, if this is true, no wonder that the western Europeans described the Hungarians in not the most flattering terms. See the chronicler of St. Gallen, Switzerland, who described the Hungarians as very ugly. If these "wide and short" skulled people showed up in Switzerland among the "long and narrow" skulled people it is not at all surprising that the good old ancestors of the Swiss were a bit taken aback! Apparently the Bashkirs are a Turkic people and Fóthi assumes a close relationship between early Hungarian invaders and the Bashkirs. When National Geographic pushed her, she admitted that "the similar anthropological characteristics between the two groups don't necessarily mean that they were one and the same but that both groups came from the same genetic basis."
One gets to the point of actually feeling sorry for these anthropologists who since the discovery and application of DNA for genetic research still rely on wide and narrow or long and short skulls. Because it seems to me that the Hungarian extreme right loves the idea of Bashkiria as the original homeland (Magna Hungaria) it might not be a bad idea to check the genetic markers between today's and yesteryear's Bashkirs and the remains of early Hungarian settlers in the Carpathian Basin. However, I doubt that even if the genetic markers proved that the Bashkirs and Hungarians don't have much in common one could convince the true believers. I read with some interest lately that one of the three Jobbik EP members had a long and I hope fruitful conversation with the Kazakh representative to the European Union about the close relationship between Kazakhs and Hungarians. In case one is a bit foggy on Central Asian geography, Bashkiria, part of Russia, is just north of Kazakhstan. Where the Hungarians started their westward journey is obviously controversial, but at some point they must have gotten in close contact with Persian-speaking people. The number of Persian words in the Hungarian vocabulary is strikingly high. See arany = gold, hét = week, tej = milk, tíz = ten, and so on. Today, we know a bit more on this part of the Hungarians' journey from genetic sources. Not human genetics, but genetic studies of horses. Early Hungarian graves, especially those of rich men, also contained the bones of the man's horse. Originally Hungarian researchers believed that the horses the Hungarians used were short, small animals. Well, they turned out to be horses related to horses that can be found in today's Turkmenistan called "akhal teke" types. These horses were considered the Cadillac of horses in the Middle Ages because on very little fodder they could easily cover 120-130 kilometers a day. And, yes, Turkmenistan is just north of Iran.