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Genetic secrets of early medieval warriors revealed from German burial site

In 1962, an Alemannic burial site containing human skeletal remains was discovered in Niederstotzingen in southwestern Germany. A team of researchers have now examined the DNA of these skeletal remains, and discovered that this was a group of warriors buried between the years 580 and 630 AD.

Excavated human remains at the burial site. Photo: Landesamt für Denkmalpflege im RP Stuttgart

The genetic research has enabled them to determine not only the sex and the degree of kinship of those people but also their ancestral origins, which provides new insights into societal structures in the Early Middle Ages. The results of this study have now been reported in the journal Science Advances.

Archaeologists recovered thirteen human skeletons, the remains of three horses and some excellently preserved grave goods of diverse origin. This burial site, which was discovered near a Roman crossroads, consists of twelve graves, and it is believed that individuals had been buried over the course of two generations. The molecular genetic investigations have now brought new details to light about the individuals and their final resting place in this high-ranking warrior type burial.

Using DNA analysis the researchers were able to reconstruct maternal as well as paternal kinship. On the basis of tooth samples the scientists could ascertain that five of the individuals were either first- or second-degree relatives. In addition, the deceased displayed a variety of patterns of genetic origin. Six individuals were genetically most like modern northern and eastern European populations, while two individuals are most similar to modern-day Mediterraneans, but genetically unrelated. Finally, by examining the individuals’ dental enamel it revealed the first six individuals were born locally, while the those with a Mediterranean genetic background were born in other regions.

Three individuals were genetically unrelated to the others, and the article’s authors write that this “would imply that this Alemannic group buried their dead based on a combination of familial ties and fellowship. One explanation could be that they were adopted as children from another region to be trained as warriors, which was a common practice at the time; these children were raised with equal regard in the familia.”

In this context the grave goods, with which the multiple graves were adorned and which are of Frankish, Lombard and Byzantine origin, are also very interesting. Their diverse origin in combination with the new genetic data indicates a cultural openness and demonstrates how members of the same family were receptive to different cultures.

Comb with etui. Photo:
Landesmuseum Württemberg, P. Frankenstein / H. Zwietasch

“These results prove the existence of remarkable transregional contacts. The fact that they were buried together also indicates a link between the families and their entourage which went beyond death,” explains Niall O’Sullivan, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

In addition to the kinship analysis the researchers also determined the sex of the individuals using molecular testing. It revealed that at least 11 of the individuals were likely male. The researchers noted how one case was difficult to solve. “Anthropologists determine the sex of skeletal remains by using specific physical sexual characteristics,” explains Frank Maixner, microbiologist at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at Eurac Research Centre in Italy, “but if the bones of certain body areas are missing, then this will make gender determination much more difficult. DNA-analyses open new paths in this respect – and in this specific case we were able to identify the young individual molecularly as a male, and thus exclude the possibility that we were dealing with an early medieval female warrior.”

The considerable advances which have been made in molecular genetics in recent years allow thus far unanswered questions to be raised again and for historical as well as archaeological findings to be added to. “This research into the burial site at Niederstotzingen is a textbook example of how we can support archaeologists and anthropologists with new methods, in order to delve deeper into unanswered questions in a regional context,” says Maixner.

The Alemanni were a confederation of Germanic tribes that occupied a region spanning parts of present-day Germany, France, Switzerland and Austria. Around the year 495 AD they were conquered by the Franks and incorporated into their kingdom. They gradually converted from pagan beliefs to Christianity in the seventh century, and it was during this period that their burial practices changed, with households buried in richly furnished graves known as Adelsgrablege. The site at Niederstotzingen is considered the most important of these.

The article “Ancient genome-wide analyses infer kinship structure in an Early Medieval Alemannic graveyard” is published in Science Advances. Click here to read it.

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