A multidisciplinary study has reconstructed the genomic history of the Balkan Peninsula during the first millennium of the common era, a time and place of profound demographic, cultural and linguistic change.
The team has recovered and analyzed whole genome data from 146 ancient people excavated primarily from Serbia and Croatia—more than a third of which came from the Roman military frontier at the massive archaeological site of Viminacium in Serbia—which they co-analyzed with data from the rest of the Balkans and nearby regions.
The work, published in the journal Cell, highlights the cosmopolitanism of the Roman frontier and the long-term consequences of migrations that accompanied the breakdown of Roman control, including the arrival of people speaking Slavic languages.
“This is a type of pilot study because soon, much larger studies dealing with this topic will be published under the leadership of Harvard University, i.e. genetic history of the modern inhabitants of Southeast Europe and Slavs in general. Thanks to this research, we have obtained irrefutable biological evidence of the mass settlement of individuals and communities speaking Slavic languages during the early Middle Ages in the Balkans, as far as Greece and the Aegean Islands, and that most of the genetic heritage of the modern inhabitants of these areas can be linked precisely to those migrations. Slavic DNA, according to the research, make up 50-60 percent of the genetic heritage of Croats and Serbs, and the further south we go, this percentage decreases”, says Dr Mario Novak from the Institute of Anthropology, adding:
Massive demographic influx into the Balkans from the East during the Roman Empire
After Rome occupied the Balkans, it turned this border region into a crossroads, one that would eventually give rise to 26 Roman Emperors, including Constantine the Great, who shifted the capital of the empire to the eastern Balkans when he founded the city of Constantinople.
The team’s analysis of ancient DNA shows that during the period of Roman control, there was a large demographic contribution of people of Anatolian descent that left a long-term genetic imprint in the Balkans. This ancestry shift is very similar to what a previous study showed happened in the megacity of Rome itself—the original core of the empire—but it is remarkable that this also occurred at the Roman Empire’s periphery.
The Roman Empire permanently lost control of the Balkans in the sixth century, and the study reveals the subsequent large-scale arrival in the Balkans of individuals genetically similar to the modern Slavic-speaking populations of Eastern Europe. Their genetic fingerprint accounts for 30-60% of the ancestry of today’s Balkan peoples, representing one of the largest permanent demographic shifts anywhere in Europe in the early medieval period.
“According to our ancient DNA analysis, this arrival of Slavic-speaking populations in the Balkans took place over several generations and involved entire family groups, including both men and women,” explains Pablo Carrión, a researcher at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology and co-lead author of the study.
The establishment of Slavic populations in the Balkans was greatest in the north, with a genetic contribution of 50-60% in present-day Serbia, and gradually less towards the south, with 30-40% in mainland Greece and up to 20% in the Aegean islands.
The team also generated genomic data from diverse present-day Serbs that could be compared with ancient genomes and other present-day groups from the region.
“We found there was no genomic database of modern Serbs. We therefore sampled people who self-identified as Serbs based on shared cultural traits, even if they lived in different countries such as Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro or North Macedonia”, said co-author Miodrag Grbic, a professor at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.
Co-analyzing the data with that of other modern people in the region, as well as the ancient individuals, shows that the genomes of the Croats and Serbs are very similar, reflecting shared heritage with similar proportions of Slavic and local Balkan ancestry.
(Blic, Phys.org, 07.12.2023)
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