For the first time ever, DNA sequencing of ancient human remains thought to belong to 13th-century Crusaders reveals that the ancient warriors lived, loved, and fought alongside local residents of what is now Lebanon.
Between 1095 and 1291, the Crusades brought hundreds of thousands of Europeans south to settle along the eastern Mediterranean coast in an attempt to settle Christian states through religious warfare. Historical records indicate that the causes were often led by nobility, but little is known about the lives of ordinary soldiers who traveled, lived, and died for their beliefs.
“Historical documents tell us the names of the nobility who led the Crusades, but the identities of the soldiers remained a mystery,” said researcher Chris Tyler-Smith in a statement. “Genomics gives an unprecedented view of the past and shows the Crusaders originated from western Europe and recruited local people of the Near East to join them in battle. The Crusaders and Near Easterners lived, fought and died side by side.”
To answer these questions, researchers turned to a burial place known as “Crusaders’ Pit” at Qornet ed-Deir, Jabal Moussa UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in south Lebanon where a total of 25 male skeletons were buried. Blunt force trauma injuries to the skulls and bones indicate that the men died violently during battle, after which their bodies were disposed of in the pit and buried. A combination of radiocarbon dating and artifacts found in the pit – including European shoe buckles and a coin – led researchers to believe that at least some of the skeletons were likely Crusaders, but what about the rest of them?
The team transferred nine of the skeletons from Lebanon to a sterile laboratory in Cambridge where they were able to extract small portions of surviving 800-year-old DNA from skull bones – an exceedingly difficult task due to both the posthumous burning of the bodies and the hot, humid climate they spent the last eight centuries in. They determined that three individuals were Europeans of diverse origins, including Spain and Sardinia. Four were Near Easterners recruited to the fight, and two had mixed ancestry meaning they were probably the offspring of locals and Crusaders.
Altogether, the findings suggest a “remarkable genetic diversity... coexisted in this region,” wrote the authors in the American Journal of Human Genetics.
“The Crusaders traveled to the Near East and had relationships with the local people, with their sons later joining to fight their cause. However, after the fighting had finished, the mixed generation married into the local population and the genetic traces of the Crusaders were quickly lost,” said researcher Marc Haber.
The diversity was short-lived. The DNA sequencing of people currently living in Lebanon during the Roman period 2,000 years ago suggests that people living in the region now are more genetically similar to the Roman Lebanese, meaning the Crusaders did not have a lasting impact on Lebanese genetics.
Though not all mass human migrations leave genetic imprints, the new work sheds some light on how human movement can reshape the genetic diversity of local populations.