Cross-Disciplinary Analysis of Ancient Cemeteries Sheds Light on Social Organization and Migration of 6th-Century Barbarians

Researchers find that individuals with more northern and central European genetic ancestry were buried with more elaborate grave goods than those with more southern, local ancestry.

September 11, 2018

Applying a comprehensive analysis of genetic, historical, and archeological factors in two 6th century barbarian cemeteries, researchers have gleaned new insights into a key era that laid the foundation for modern European society, known as the Migration Period. They found evidence that the majority of the graves could potentially belong to invaders from the north, as described by the Romans, and that these graves contained more elaborate grave goods in comparison to the graves of individuals with more local ancestry.

Adapted from a press release by the Institute for Advanced Studies and Stony Brook University.

Spanning from the 4th to 8th centuries, the Migration Period followed the decline of the Western Roman Empire and was a time of major socioeconomic and cultural transformation in Europe. However, despite more than a century of scholarly work by historians and archaeologists, much about the period still remains unknown or is hotly debated, as reliable written accounts are often lacking.

A paper, published today in Nature Communications, seeks to shed new light on this period. The international team of geneticists, historians, and archaeologists led by Professor Patrick Geary of the Institute for Advanced Study, Professor Krishna Veeramah of Stony Brook University, Professor Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and Professor David Caramelli of the University of Florence, have for the first time sequenced the genomes of entire ancient cemeteries – one in Hungary and one in Italy.

Invaders from the North?

This research provides the clearest picture yet of the lives and population movements of communities associated with the Longobards or Lombards, a barbarian people that ruled most of Italy for more than two hundred years after invading from the Roman Province of Pannonia (modern day Hungary) in 568 C.E. The team generated data from the North Italian cemetery in Collegno and the Hungarian cemetery in Szólád, with the latter almost doubling the number of ancient genomes obtained from a single ancient site to date. The study aims to clarify how these two communities were formed, how the people lived, and how they interacted with the local populations they reportedly came to dominate. This in-depth genomic characterization allowed the team to examine the relationship between the genetic ancestry of the community and the archaeological material left behind.

The researchers found that in both cemeteries, individuals buried with elaborate grave goods, like swords and shields for the men and beaded necklaces and broaches for the women, tended to have a genetic ancestry associated with modern northern and central Europeans, while there were fewer grave goods in the graves of individuals with more southern ancestry. The individuals with abundant grave goods also tended to consume more protein-rich diets.

The researchers were able to reconstruct comprehensive genealogies of the people buried in these cemeteries, finding family relationships spanning multiple generations. “It looks like both these cemeteries organized themselves around one or two large groups of biologically related kin, with the vast majority of these individuals being men,” explains Veeramah. “In addition, these related individuals tended to share the northern/central genetic ancestry associated with rich grave goods.”

Strong kinship networks may have been the key to establishing stable communities

The team notes that it is unusual to see this genetic ancestry type in Hungary and certainly in Italy in the 6th century. “Combining ancient DNA with strontium isotopes suggests that individuals of northern ancestry were migrants while the ones with southern ancestry were locals, an observation that is consistent with the barbaric invasion into Italy,” states Cosimo Posth, postdoctoral researcher in Jena and co-first author of the study.

Geary adds, “Prior to this study, we would not have expected to observe such a strong relationship between genetic background and material culture. This appears to suggest that these particular communities contained a mix of individuals with different genetic backgrounds, that they were aware of these differences, and that it likely influenced their social identity.”

Veeramah, Caramelli, Krause, and Geary stress that these results represent mere snapshots of the period and that more work in other cemeteries in other regions is vital for truly understanding this period. “It could be that we look at some new cemeteries 50 km away or that are 100 years older or younger and find very different patterns of social organization. People are complicated now, and they almost certainly were during the Migration Period,” states Geary. “There are thousands of medieval cemeteries out there for us to look at. This is hopefully just the beginning of our work.”

Value of a cross-disciplinary framework

“What we have presented in this study is a unique cross-discipline framework for the future,” adds Geary, “uniting experts from different disciplines to reinterpret and reconcile historical, genomic, isotopic, and archaeological evidence to enhance our knowledge of the past, compile new information on how populations move, how culture is transmitted, how to better understand identity, and new ways of understanding the complexity, heterogeneity, and malleability of Europe’s population in the past and the present.”


Adapted from a press release by the Institute for Advanced Studies and Stony Brook University.

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