Under the direction of Professor Patrick Geary of the Institute for Advanced Study, a team of archaeologists, geneticists, and historians are undertaking genomic analysis of some 1400 individuals found in cemeteries in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, and Italy in the sixth century.

How can genetics improve our understanding of Early Middle Ages?

The history of Europe’s populations has always been one of migration, from the earliest Neanderthal settlers, to subsequent migrations of hunter-gatherers, farmers, invaders and colonizers up to the present masses of political and economic refugees from western Asia and Africa. Some of these may have been long-term, imperceptible processes, others short-term and violent. Population movements between the fourth and seventh centuries of the Common Era have long been the focus of particular interest because since the eighteenth century many historians have credited the so-called Barbarian migrations (or invasions) with bringing about the end of the Roman Empire in the West. The traditional version saw cohesive ethnic and cultural units of men, women, and children on the move from North to South and East to West, entering, conquering, and settling the provinces of the Roman Empire and establishing new barbarian kingdoms in its ruins. Such claims are very much disputed: Today many scholars minimize the numbers of migrants from the frontiers of the Empire into Italy, Gaul, the Iberian Peninsula, and the British Isles. They argue instead that smaller, heterogeneous military units of Romanized barbarian soldiers were recruited by various factions in incessant civil wars. Some of these, in time, were settled by Roman authorities in the provinces in which they were stationed and came to dominate them. In other cases, military coups d’état did indeed result in the establishment of new polities, but the perpetrators of these coups were numerically small and quickly assimilated into the mass of the population, even when they left ethnic names to their newly won kingdoms.

The sparse and ambiguous evidence upon which competing theories concerning these alleged barbarian migrations has long prevented a resolution to these debates. Barbarians left no contemporary records of who they were, the nature of their social and cultural organizations, their numbers, intentions, or itineraries. Contemporary descriptions are exclusively Roman, highly rhetorical, and difficult to evaluate. Later, fuller accounts draw on long traditions of Roman ethnography of the “other” and, while purporting to tell the histories of early medieval peoples, are firmly rooted in the cultures and politics of their authors. Archaeological evidence of cultural change both within and without the Empire is abundant and shows significant changes in the organization and representation of the dead through increasingly rich funerary offerings, organization of graves, and can be divided into culturally differentiated groupings. However the extent to which these cultural zones correspond to the peoples named in written sources is hotly disputed and the extent to which the spread of specific cultural traditions took place by massive population movements rather than by cultural imitation and adoption is impossible to gage from the material culture alone.

This project is intended to bring a new type of evidence into the ongoing study of the migration period by developing new ways of collecting and analyzing ancient DNA collected from cemeteries within and without the Roman Empire at the time of the migrations.