S-brooches from Longobard Cemetery in Northern Italy. Source: Pinterest

The Genetics of Longobard-Era Migrations

For some time an international and interdisciplinary group of archaeologists, scientists, and historians have worked to uncover the minutiae of the Longobard invasion of Italy in AD 568. Genetic explorations are shedding extremely important new light on the linkage between genetics and cultural profiles.

According to the historian Paul the Deacon, the Longobards, who entered Italy in 568, originally came from Scandinavia via present-day Hungary and Czekia. Traditionally they have been identified through their jewellery and weapons as well as the tradition of burying their dead in furnished graves.

In the latter part of the 20thcentury, questions were raised as to the extent objects might be identified as markers for ethnic identity. These questions were part of avery  contentious debate as to the magnitude of the migratory movement of people in the 4thto 6thcenturies, the so-called migration period.

Was it just small groups of Germanic mercenaries, who migrated? Did women participate in the migrations or were they “sourced” among the local populace? Did the distinct jewels, weapons and burial practices reflect inventions of traditions following the upheavals in Late Antiquity? Rather than a cultural diffusion from Germania Magna into the Western Roman Empire?

One way of answering these questions is of course to try and characterise the genetic make-up of people from different kinds of burials in order to identify their genetic heritage and then par it with their cultural profile.

Recently the researchers behind the project “Lombards on the Move”  – reported some new results. By studying the mitochondrial sequences of 87 individuals from nine early-medieval cemeteries along the route believed to have been used by the migrating Longobards in the mid-6thcentury, and linking the results with the cultural profiles of their burials, they have come up with some fascinating results.

The mains results are that there was a 70% degree of genetic continuity between individuals buried with what is believed to be traditional Longobard cultural markers reaching from Hungary to Northwestern Italy. Also, regarding twelve individuals, it was possible to discern a mitochondrial profile found in high frequencies in northern Europe, e. g. Finland. Eight of these twelve persons were buried with what has hitherto been regarded as typical Longobard artefacts. But the study also showed that a definite genetic admixture had taken place – either at an earlier time or during the migration period. To conclude: there did exist a certain likage between genetics and material culture. But the identification is not 100%.

In their conclusion, the authors write that “this supports the idea that the spread of Longobards into Italy actually involved movements of a fairly large number of people, who gave a substantial contribution to the gene pool of the resulting populations.” This is even more remarkable as the mitochondrial element of a genetic profile is inherited though mothers, which means that the migratory movement cannot have consisted only of male militia. Women must to some extent have accompanied them, or their offspring in the new locality would have lost its original genetic imprint.


A Genetic Perspective on Longobard-Era migrations
By Stefania Vai, Andrea Brunelli, Alessandra Modi, Francesca Tassi, Chiara Vergata, Elena Pilli, Martina Lari, Roberta Rosa Susca, Caterina Giostra, Luisella Pejrani Baricco, Elena Bedini, Istvan Koncz, Tivadar Vidar, Balazs Gusztav Mende, Daniel Winger, Zuzana Loskotova, Krishna Veeramah, Patrick Geary, Guido Barbujani, David Caramelli, Silvia Ghirotto
The article has been generously shared on bioRxiv – The Preprint Server for Biology. (And has not yet been peer-reviewed).





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