Many of the myths on which modern European nations are founded arise in the well-known epoch of the great migrations, shortly after the fall of Rome and up to the year 722. At that time, around <> A.D., the Battle of Covadonga took place, with which the Visigoths supposedly began the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the French celebrated the victory in the Battle of Poitiers against the Muslims around the same date and the Hungarians remembered their arrival in the area that their country now occupies. from Asia, a century later. Many of the stories told from that time, in which documents are scarce, came to the present in accounts written much later, or were reconstructed from archaeological sites. The study of ancient genetics, which allows us to investigate the lineage of those peoples, has become a tool to better reconstruct history and, in some cases, question myths. This week, a paper published in the journal Cell shows what DNA says about the current and past population of the Balkans, a region where ethnic identity has fueled intense conflict.
DNA reveals the oldest family tree in a family, 6,700 years ago
The researchers extracted DNA from 136 individuals taken from 20 sites, which included large Roman cities, military camps and some rural localities, and divided the study into three phases, the period of imperial expansion (1-250 AD), the late empire (250-550 AD) and the centuries after the collapse of Rome (550-1000). In the first stage, historians, who along with local archaeologists collaborated on the study, were surprised by the absence of Italian ancestry. Instead, that empire, which saw the first globalization, was populated by people from the region that is now Turkey, central and northern Europe, or the steppe north of the Black Sea. This may be because, although the capital was in the west, the eastern part of the empire was much more populated.
One of the cities studied was Viminacium, on the Danube, in present-day Serbia. With more than 40,000 inhabitants in its heyday, it was also a large military camp. Eighteen Roman emperors were born in this frontier region, at a time when the best warriors were chosen for the post, and Constantine I, the emperor who ended the persecution of Christians in the fourth century, was born there. From that first stage is the body of a young man analysed in this study, about 18 years old, from East Africa, in present-day Ethiopia or Sudan, far from the limits of the empire. "From the third and fourth centuries, in Viminacium, we found a mixture of Germanic and steppe people, some with deformed skulls, because the Huns did that with children to differentiate the elites," says Carles Lalueza-Fox, a researcher at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology of Barcelona (CSIC-Universitat Pompeu Fabra) and co-author of the study published today.
A skull deformed by a cultural practice typical of the HunsCarles Lalueza-Fox
The invasions of the Slavs, around the sixth century, destroyed Viminacium, which was never rebuilt, and today it has become a gigantic archaeological site in which more than 10,000 tombs have already been excavated. According to Lalueza-Fox, it was in the period after the arrival of the Slavs that DNA offered the most sensitive information, especially because of the possible political implications. Although genetics confirm the weight of the Slavic arrival, the mixture with the Mediterranean populations remains at approximately 50%, an unsatisfactory result for some. "When I went to explain the preliminary results to the National Academy of Sciences of Serbia, there were academics who did not agree with the results, because they had the idea that they are only Slavs, and with these results you could claim a Mediterranean identity in the same way," recalls the researcher. This ancestry shows the effects of the invasion of those barbarians who entered through the Danube from the north and populated the Balkans to the south, reaching what is now Greece, including the Aegean islands.
Ethnic identity often has political consequences. The Serbs are the South Slavs and there is an affinity with Russia, including its policy in Ukraine, far superior to that of the rest of Europe. "There is an official interpretation of pan-Slavic archaeology, from a time when they were going to be trained in Russia, which wants to believe that they are 100% Slavic," Lalueza-Fox continues. Studies such as the one presented today by Cell have already been used for political purposes.
In 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the publication in Science Advances of DNA analysis results from 3,200 years ago at a Philistine site in Ashkelon, in present-day Israel. In a series of tweets, which show the interest of these studies for nationalist politicians, he claimed that, "as we know from the Bible," DNA confirmed the origin of the Philistines in southern Europe, and ruled out the relationship between this people and the Palestinians. "The Palestinians' connection to the land of Israel is nothing compared to the 4,000-year connection the Jews have to the land," he concluded.
Another similar case is told by Howard Wolinski in an article published in the journal Embo Reports. In 2019, Miklós Kásler, director of Hungary's National Institute of Oncology, published the genetic analysis of the remains of King Bela III, from the <>th century, and noted that the monarch's mitochondrial DNA belonged to a group with a wide distribution across Europe and Asia. Kásler, however, interpreted his own findings more spectacularly in statements to the nationalist newspaper Magyar Idők, claiming that his results showed that the house of Árpad, founder of the Kingdom of Hungary, was of Eurasian origin. This interpretation underpins President Viktor Orban's account, which places the origin of his nation among the warriors of Attila's Huns. Kasler was later appointed minister by Orban and created the Institute for Hungarian Studies, something that has raised concerns about the use of science for political purposes.
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