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
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.
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.