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

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - HistoGenes (Integrating genetic, archaeological and historical perspectives on Eastern Central Europe, 400-900 CE)

Reporting period: 2020-05-01 to 2021-10-31

Few parts of Europe witnessed so many population shifts in a few centuries as the Carpathian Basin in 400-900 CE. In this macro-region along the middle Danube, Pannonians, Romans, Goths, Gepids, Longobards, Avars, Bulgars, Slavs, Franks and many others came and went. This is an intriguing test case for the relationship between the names of peoples found in texts of the period, cultural habitus attested in the archaeological record, and genetic profiles that can now be analysed through ancient DNA. What was the impact of migrations and mobility on the population of the Carpathian Basin? Was the late antique population replaced, did it mix with the newcomers, or did its descendants only adopt new cultural styles? To what degree did biological distinctions correspond to the cultural boundaries and/or ethnonyms in the texts? The evidence used in HistoGenes is particularly suited to explore these general questions about the relationship between biological, cultural and political identities of the past, and about the impact of migrations and mobility. Besides, it will extend our knowledge about ways of life in Central Europe after the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, in a formative period of European history.
HistoGenes analyses c. 6,000 samples from graves with cutting edge genetic and other scientific methods, and contextualizes the interpretation of these data in their archaeological and historical setting. The rapid progress of aDNA analysis and of bio-informatics now make such an enterprise viable. However, the methods of historical interpretation have not kept pace. HistoGenes, for the first time, unites historians, archaeologists, geneticists, anthropologists, and specialists in bio-informatics, isotope analysis and in other fields in a joint project. The project aims for an integrated analysis of human social organization, cultural forms, mobility, and dynamic change in Eastern Central Europe. Thus, HistoGenes will not only advance our knowledge about a key period in European history, but also establish new standards for the historical interpretation of genetic data, and create a model for the collaboration between Sciences and Humanities.
This is a very complex interdisciplinary project involving 11 beneficiaries between Budapest and New York, and from several scientific and humanities disciplines. Serious obstacles were caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the planned workflow has immediately begun, due to the great commitment for the project shown by all project members and partners. Sampling and bone powder extraction from c. 3600 skeletons was done in Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany. DNA has already been extracted in the Leipzig and Jena laboratories from almost 2000 samples. Successively, target enrichment and SNP capture were conducted, both for human DNA and for pathogen screening. The next step was bioinformatic processing, mainly for ancestry and for the inference of large-scale pedigrees, and for the modelling of mobility and migration. As a pilot project, the data from an analysis of c. 60 samples, mainly from Avar elite graves of the 7th century, which was performed before the HistoGenes project began, were analysed, discussed and submitted for publication.

Refining our sampling strategies and revising the list of sites under study included a critical revision of previous results for the published sites and data collection in museums and collections. The internal chronology of the sites was assessed to make it comparable between sites, and to help studying migration, social differences and cultural contacts in the community and on a regional level. All the information was then fed into the project database built in AirTable, which allows complex searches and visualisations. Another important activity in the first period was the anthropological preparation of skeletons for sampling. Skeletal material had to be sought, verified, and prepared for sampling. Basic data were ascertained and documented, such as sex, age, conspicuous features and measures. The anthropology teams from several countries developed a manual for recording the features for data base entry and in-depth analysis of the skeletons. Anthropological studies of markers of diseases on skeletons were conducted, and some papers about specific cases (e.g. leprosy) are in preparation.

In parallel, some accompanying historical studies were begun, including comparative research on the early medieval steppe empires, for instance comparing Western and Chinese sources (in part still lacking a translation into Western languages) on the steppe peoples, which allows both confronting perceptions and assessing information on the ways of life in the steppe zone. A study on the geographic and ethnographic texts of the period reviews the evidence for a multitude of peoples and names attested in the regions under scrutiny.

The forum in which all relevant issues could be discussed was a weekly Zoom meeting for all project members and selected partners, in which we learnt much about the methods and approaches of each discipline involved. The two plenary meetings held so far – in February 2020 and one in September 2021 – allowed for in-depth discussion of strategies, work in progress and first results. These meetings also enabled intensive debates about methodology. A key issue was terminology, i.e. the labels chosen for the definition of genetic clusters, ‘ancestries’ and archaeological groups, and it was decided not to use ethnic labels for any of them so as to avoid unwarranted inferences about the biological or cultural character of ethnic identities.
As the complex workflow is very time-consuming, there are so far only partial and preliminary results which cannot be publicized at this stage. However, the entire process goes far beyond the state of the art. This regards the involvement of archaeologists and historians in the choice of relevant research questions and the selection of sites for genetic/scientific analysis, but also in discussions about terminology and methodology, which had not happened ever before in such a systematic way in a large project. Furthermore, the decision to analyse, wherever possible, entire cemeteries has also opened doors to a more comprehensive understanding of social structures, ways of life and composition of local settlement groups. This, in turn, was only possible because the project reaches new dimensions in the number of individuals analysed. The Leipzig lab uses the most recent technologies for processing and analysing the samples and, together with the Veeramah lab at the State University of New York, constantly engages in the development of new methods of bioinformatic processing. The methods to infer kindred and family relations have made spectacular progress. The first results indicate that our understanding of Avar migration and the population of the Carpathian Basin in the Avar period (6th-8th centuries) can be moved to a new level, in a process of critical integration of genetic, isotopic, archaeological, anthropological and historical evidence. The work done so far inspires the hope that HistoGenes will be able to deliver on its promises.
HistoGenes Plenary Meeting