DNA From Barbarians' Grave Sheds Surprising Light On Mysterious Period Of History

'Germanic warriors' as depicted in Philipp Clüver's Germania Antiqua (1616). Public Domain

The fourth century to eighth centuries CE was a time of earthshaking change for Europe. The Western Roman Empire had begun to crumble, and swathes of this once-great empire were being picked off by non-Roman “barbarian" tribes from the north, like the Goths, the Vandals, the Huns, and the Longobards.

However, much of the story about this period remains a bit of mystery as the barbarians, on the whole, were pretty bad at keeping records.

Now, thanks to an in-depth study of the barbarians’ DNA, as well as their ancient artifacts, researchers finally understand how some non-Roman barbarian tribes migrated around Europe and shaped its future.

The new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, sequenced the genomes of two entire cemeteries built in the sixth century, one located in Hungary, and one in northern Italy. Both cemeteries were previously associated with the Longobards, a Germanic barbarian people who ruled most of the Italian Peninsula from 568 to 774 CE.

Remarkably, their findings suggest the cemetery was a relatively multicultural place. Each cemetery was organized around a single central family group of central or northern European descent. Alongside their graves, there were individuals closer to the local area in southern Europe. The graves of the northern Europeans tended to decorated with elaborate grave goods, like swords and shields for the men and beaded necklaces and brooches for the women. Their remains also suggested that they consumed hearty protein-rich diets. The other graves contained fewer objects and appeared less well-nourished. 

Elaborate grave goods from one of the graves associated with potential northern invaders. © Amorim et al. 2018. Understanding 6th-Century Barbarian Social Organization and Migration through Paleogenomics. Nature Communications.

“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,” Professor Patrick Geary, the Institute for Advanced Study in the US, said in a statement.

"Prior to this study, we would not have expected to observe such a strong relationship between genetic background and material culture,” they added.

All of this provides the researchers with some rare hard evidence about how the non-Roman tribes, namely the Longobards, who migrated down from northern Europe and begun to conquer lands as Rome's power began to dwindle. 

“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 of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

“Though we really need more data,” Professor Krishna Veeramah of Stony Brook University added, “our current results are consistent with the idea of barbarians migrating from north of Danube and east of the Rhine, which would suggest we are observing the invasions previously described by the Romans."

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