An article published in the journal “Nature Communications” describes a paleogenomics research that attempted to reconstruct some migrations of the barbarian populations in the 6th century C.E. through Europe. A team of researchers performed a multidisciplinary analysis that includes genetics, history and archeology to get new information on the movements of various populations during that chaotic period. Genetic data were obtained from 63 samples taken in two 6th century Lombard cemeteries, one in Szólád, in present-day Hungary, and one in Collegno, near Turin, in Italy, discovering that the richest graves tended to have ancestors from northeastern Europe while those in poorer tombs tended to have ancestors in southern Europe.
For jobs related to big amounts of genetic data, today there are sophisticated computer applications that led the creations to the branch of molecular biology called genomics. When it’s applied to paleogenetics, the discipline that generally studies the DNA of ancient human beings, it’s called paleogenomics.
Between the 4th and 8th centuries C.E., with the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire, there were some centuries of strong changes in Europe with the so-called Migration Period with barbarian peoples who were not only looting Roman cities but in many cases were into actual migrations. However, the precise reconstruction of those events and of the various migrations is still far from complete and is sometimes at the center of heated arguments due to the lack of reliable data that leave the field to interpretations by scholars.
The possibility of recovering the DNA of people who lived in ancient times today allows to reconstruct with a precision previously unthinkable the possible kinships among people buried in a cemetery, their ancestry and who today might descend from them. Technological advances have always been seen in an ambivalent way by archaeologists because they allow to obtain considerable progress in research, but there are scholars who fear that studies end up confined in labs mixing genetic lines and past cultures. Precisely to avoid this type of problem, this new multidisciplinary research integrated genetics, history and archeology.
In this specific case, the progress of paleogenomics allowed the reconstruction of the genealogies of the people buried in two cemeteries linked to the Lombard, or Longobard, kingdom, 39 in the Szólád cemetery and 24 in the Collegno cemetery. Professor Krishna Veeramah of Stony Brook University, one of the main authors, explained that it turned out that the two cemeteries were organized around one or two kins of related people, for the vast majority of men.
The image (courtesy Amorim et al 2018. All rights reserved) contains a map showing the Lombard kingdom and the ancient province of Pannonia with the positions of the two cemeteries at the center of this study and some objects found in the tomb of one of the men buried in the cemetery of Collegno.
Cosimo Posth of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, another of the main authors of the research, explained that the analyzes carried out suggest that people with northern ancestors were immigrants while the ones with southern ancestors were local inhabitants. That’s consistent with our knowledge of barbarian invasions in Italy.
The Longobards dominated most of Italy and invaded the ancient Roman province of Pannonia, today’s Hungary, in 568 C.E. yet the researchers were surprised by the discovery of that mix of people with different genetic ancestries. Professor Patrick Geary of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, another of the main authors of the research, believes that people in that community were aware of those differences and that they influenced their social identity.
The researchers pointed out that the results of this genetic research provide only limited portraits of that period and that studies of other cemeteries in other regions are vital to provide other data for a real understanding of that period. People buried in a cemetery somewhere else, a little older or a little more recent, could show very different genetic traits and social organization.
In essence, a genetic research focused on people who lived in areas ruled by the Longobards in the period in which they lived revealed certain ancestries but in those centuries there were many migrations and that’s why Patrick Geary stated that this was only the beginning of his and his colleagues’ work. There are thousands of medieval cemeteries where new genetic analyzes could be performed to provide new information that will help to understand which populations mixed up over the centuries to form the current European populations.