Integrating genetic, archaeological and historical perspectives on Eastern Central Europe, 400-900 AD

ERC Synergy Grant - HistoGenes 856453

History and genetics: a new approach

Scientific methods in archaeology, and in particular palaeogenetics, have made spectacular progress in recent years. Whole genome sequencing, SNP capture, principal component analysis, advanced computer modelling and more now provide a toolbox to extract robust data from ancient DNA (aDNA), fine-tuned enough to distinguish between genetic clusters even in historical periods in which the European population already shared most of its genetic heritage. These methods also gradually become more affordable, although they still require investments that are only viable through large grants. Highly ambitious projects are drafted, and the competition for access to samples has begun. Using scientific methods to clarify the population history of Europe in times when of extensive written evidence is available, however, encounters a fundamental problem. As yet, we lack a proven method to integrate genetic, archaeological and historical evidence into a coherent picture of the past. This is what HistoGenes strives to achieve through a broadly-conceived pilot project conducted by an experienced team from all involved disciplines.

In fact, the problem is not simply the lack of an adequate method: it is the prevalence of an insufficient approach. Many genetic studies simply identify the clusters that emerge from their data with historical peoples. This is a good way to create maximum media attention, especially where it also allows creating a direct link to modern nations: finding an Anglo-Saxon, Hungarian, Viking ‘we’ in bones that are over 1000 years old caters to the longing to find out ‘who we really are’. However, this is problematic for several reasons. It tends to direct funds for costly genetic research in directions where such short-cut equations can be trumpeted. Worse, it can be misused to affirm neo-nationalistic or even racial ideologies. Moreover, this approach rests on 19th-century paradigms, which do not represent the state of the art in History and Archaeology. It is possible that ethnic designations in the texts correspond to some extent with a shared language and distinctive culture, and can be traced to a common origin through joint migration. However, historical and archaeological research since the 1960s has yielded considerable evidence for frequent re-composition of ethnic groups, so that in most cases a high degree of admixture can be hypothesized. Whichever position one may take in the ongoing debates whether and when archaeological groups can be linked with historical peoples, the methodological principle should be clear: Historical, archaeological and biological evidence are not simply natural expressions of a fixed group identity. None of them can be taken as a proxy for the other. Their equation cannot be taken for granted, but needs to be demonstrated in each case.

Admittedly, this makes the interpretation of genetic and archaeological finds more complicated. It cannot be dealt with by geneticists alone, as has been a frequent practice in the field. This has had the unfortunate consequence that many historians and archaeologists have dismissed results of genetic studies because of their obviously faulty conclusions. If a recent, high-level study of admixture dates a putative population movement ‘at the end of the first millennium CE, a time known as the European Migration Period, or Völkerwanderung’, almost half a millennium later than historians would, then there is a problem in the communication between the disciplines. Therefore, the interpretation of genetic data should be done in interdisciplinary teams, which work together from the project design and the framing of research questions through a joint monitoring of the work flow to the interpretation of the data and their integration into a historical narrative. That requires (especially the historians) to move out of their comfort zone. Our project seeks to achieve this.

A model area for study: the Carpathian Basin in the 5th to 9th centuries

The period and the area chosen for the present project allow to test and monitor the disciplinary approaches particularly well. The Carpathian Basin – that is, modern Hungary and the surrounding areas along the Middle Danube, roughly between Vienna and Belgrade – was a hub in population movements during the centuries after the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire. In Roman times, it was divided by the Danube limes between the Roman province of Pannonia with its network of cities and roads, and a northern/eastern half settled by verious barbarian groups. What became of the Roman provincial population? In the course of the 5th and 6th centuries, Huns, Goths, Gepids, Heruls, Sciri, Suebians, Longobards, Bulgars, Avars, Slavs and Byzantine captives came, settled, and in part left again. The written sources distinguish them by ethnic names, but give only vague information about their numbers, composition and impact on the long-term population history of the country. In 567, the Avars, a group of at least partial Central Asian origin, conquered the entire Carpathian Basin, and established a steppe empire ruled by a khagan, which facilitated the expansion of the Slavs over most of Eastern Europe. This empire existed for over 200 years, and was only overcome by the Frankish armies of Charlemagne around 800. In the ninth century, Franks dominated a largely Slavic population, before the Hungarians arrived in c. 900.

Many of these groups practiced burial customs with inhumation and grave goods, which offers extraordinary evidence for studying population history and social and cultural developments on the ground. From the Avar period alone, over 70,000 graves have been excavated. As a result, we know much about the cultural profiles of the period. However, there is more potential in this rich body of evidence. There are two main issues that can be addressed in the proposed interdisciplinary research. One are the grassroot-level social structures as reflected in the cemeteries of small communities. How did the ways of life in Roman provinces such as Pannonia change when the Roman order disintegrated? A pilot project on the Longobard migration to Italy in 568 provides material to compare the development of ‘barbarian’ settlements in Pannonia and Italy before and after 568. The (debated) ‘Transformation of the Roman World’ had many faces. The issue of basic social structures can be addressed by a combination of an archaeological assessment of cemetery structure, genetic data on kinship relations, C- and N-isotope analysis about variation in diet, anthropological evidence about skeletal traces of work or fighting, and written evidence about local communities.

The second issue is the origin and composition of the inhabitants of the Carpathian Basin during the frequent shifts of rule, the extent and impact of migrations, the homogeneity or hybridity of the ethnic groups mentioned in the texts, and the degree of correspondence between cultural and genetic groups. In this issue, the relations of broader genetic clusters, SR-isotope analysis, the archaeological record of long-distance cultural similarities and differences, and textual evidence about ethnic groups, migrations and mobility need to be critically assessed in comparison. Was this essentially a population continuum dominated by changing elites who came and went again? Or do we witness a succession of different populations, as the written sources seem to suggest? Byzantine texts claim that ‘to disappear like the Avars’ even became proverbial – was this because the Avars were exterminated after their defeat, or did many of them simply change their identity and became Slavs? Genetic and other forms of bio-archaeological analysis can provide extensive data that will push discussions about population history and the impact of migrations forward. These data will not per se resolve many of the open research questions specified below. However, if HistoGenes succeeds in integrating these data with the archaeological and historical evidence in a differentiated way, this would constitute a break-through in the field.


Project design and general goals

HistoGenes will use the extraordinary archaeological evidence in the Carpathian Basin for a more profound picture of the changes in population, social structure and culture during the period. It will employ cutting edge methods of scientific archaeology, bio-informatics and population genetics to arrive at a new level of knowledge about the population history of Eastern Central Europe. Samples will be drawn both from the core area of the Carpathian basin (Hungary and adjacent lowlands) and from neighbouring regions of Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Northern Italy for comparison. The team will collect c. 6,000 samples for genetic, isotope, 14C and anthropological analysis. Core cemeteries will be comprehensively analyzed rather than sampled. This will be done in an integrated workflow between the groups of the four PIs, seeking further innovation in the processing of the samples and in the modelling of the data. These data will provide an unparalleled open-access resource for further studies of European genomic history in historical periods. The selection of the samples, the monitoring of the process and the interpretation of the data are conducted in a close cooperation between historians, archaeologists, population geneticists and bio-informaticians in order to arrive at a well-balanced historical interpretation of the data. The goal is to find a common language between the disciplines. In particular, we will assess the uses and limits of the fundamental categories of ethnicity, identity, community and migration and of ethnonyms, based on the written evidence for interpreting the archaeological and scientific data. This will be accompanied by reflections on the methodology of using bio-archaeological data and ‘classical’ archaeological evidence to arrive at historical conclusions. Thus, we seek to establish a best-practice model for the interpretation of biological data in history, and counteract a return of biological determinism and to the emergence of old and new nationalist narratives in Central and Eastern Europe. We will disseminate the results to the scholarly community in high-level scientific, archaeological and historical journals and in monographs, in data-bases and online resources, and to a general public in a major exhibition and in digital humanities tools.

Research Questions

The project will address the following major issues in the history of the transition from the Roman to the post-Roman world in the region.

The first is the dissolution of the Roman system and the fate of the ‘Roman’ provincials and their Christian culture. Eastern Central Europe has rarely featured in these debates, and this project will ask what population and cultural continuities can be discerned in the region through the Avar period.

The second is the putative Roman-barbarian dichotomy. How different were the emerging post-Roman structures on the ground between this area of apparent de-Romanisation and neighboring regions with more gradual transformation? What, for instance, were the differences between the ways of life under Longobard rule in Pannonia before 568, and in Italy and Pannonia after 568, or indeed under the Avar empire?

The third and fraught issue, the role of ethnicity, follows from these considerations. From early medieval chronicles to modern scholarly narratives, the history of the period has always been told in terms of collectives whose cohesion was taken for granted: ‘the’ Romans, ‘the’ Longobards, ‘the’ Avars, ‘the’ Slavs. That represents a cognitive scheme in the written sources, by which collective agency and political distinctions were understood in ethnic terms. Current attempts to minimize the role of ethnicity are unhelpful, because it is a key feature in the sources. Yet we cannot take these ethnic classifications for granted as modern scholarly categories, and this raises serious issues about the classification of the material culture. Attributing all distinctive features in the archaeological record to particular ethnic groups may ease integration into an overall historical narrative, but it may also be misleading. Do Longobards, Pannonians or Gepids who adopt late-Avar culture turn into Avars? Questions like this need to be re-opened on a paradigmatic and methodological level.

The fourth issue the project will investigate is the nature of migration in this region. The conventional image of ‘the great migrations’, as represented by colored lines on a map, has been deconstructed in the last decades. Current discussion have dealt with the extent to which these ‘migratory events’ were in fact simplifying perceptions condensing long-term mobility into a single violent mass migration. Theorists prefer to speak of transnationalism (understood as networks of mobility) rather than of migration. And yet, large-scale military exploits, such as the Longobard conquest of parts of Italy and the Avar move to the Carpathian Basin appear to have involved tens of thousands of individuals. Genetics and isotope analysis can provide clues. In the careful and fine-tuned combination of absolute dates in written sources, (mostly) relative dates in the archaeological record, and the corresponding genetic data, we can reach robust hypotheses on migratory movements.

A final and rather understudied issue is the social structure and cohesion of local communities and the role of kinship and of status within them. The social position and cultural profile of women is also a key concern here. A challenge will be to relate the micro-studies of small communities and their cemeteries, as accessible through the methods of archaeology, genetics and other scientific methods, to the more general narrative perspectives offered by historical accounts.


Project aims

1. Tracing the population history of the Carpathian Basin in the fifth and sixth centuries and the degree of continuity of the late Roman population.

Can we find indications of continuous settlement in genetic and isotope data? Does the variety of ethnonyms attested in the written sources correspond to a similarly varied genetic record?

2. Reconstructing the populations of the Avar Empire and the neighboring regions, 568-c. 800.

Did parts of the post-provincial population remain after a mixed group had left Pannonia in 568?Who lived in Pannonia under the early Avar Khaganate? How was the population composed, and does its genetic signature correspond to its cultural profiles? Concerning the origins and the genetic composition of the Avar military, a preliminary analysis of some of the richest Avar graves (7th c.) showed substantial Central Asian parallels. This eastern influx corresponds to written evidence; can it also be detected among lower-status warrior population?  Can genomics resolve the debate whether changes in culture in the late 7th century can be explained by new waves of immigration? In the course of the 7th century, material culture becomes quite homogeneous. Was this a cultural unification of a population that continued to be heterogeneous, or did it correspond to a process of genetic admixture and homogenization? Isotope analysis and genetic traces may shed light on internal migration – was there a high degree of mobility within the Avar realm? Can local migration across frontiers be detected?

3. Placing the Avar Khaganate in relation to its neighbours and successors

Did long-range human mobility accompany cultural exchanges? How do social developments in the Avar Khaganate compare to the post-Roman Longobard kingdom? One of the long-term outcomes of Avar domination was Slavic expansion over most of Eastern Europe. The earliest Slavs (6th/7th c.) are mentioned in texts, but in many regions have left little archaeological traces. From the 8th century onward, skeletal evidence in Slavic environments can be used to assess traces of Avar-Slav interaction, especially in border areas. Soon after the fall of their empire in 795/96, the Avars disappear from the sources. What happened to the population that had been buried in Avar style in the 8th century?

4. Small worlds and large realms: focusing on the social structure of the Carpathian Basin

With the genetic mapping of kinship relations in cemeteries, we can trace the structure of small communities in the region – did these burial communities follow similar or different models, and how did these change over time? How did biological origin correspond to social status? How do social structures and ways of life compare to those in neighbouring regions? Anthropological study and DNA analysis of pathogens (c. 500 samples) will give general clues about health, especially about the debated impact of the Justinianic plague.  Existing evidence on climate change in the period will be fed into the project, and complemented by a smaller speleological pilot study Gendered and kin-based forms of representation: Representation on a family level, anthropological sexing of skeletons and models of warrior masculinity are among the issues to be explored.


Principal investigators

Walter Pohl - Corresponding PI | Director of the Institute for Medieval Research, Austrian Academy of Sciences | Professor of Medieval History at the University of Vienna

Johannes Krause - Director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig

Tivadar Vida - Director of the Archaeological Institute at ELTE University of Budapest

Patrick J. Geary - Emeritus Professor of Medieval History, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, USA