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February 21, 2018

The genetics of the Lombard folk migration

Filed under: barbarians,Germans,Lombards,Migration,Roman History,Romans — Razib Khan @ 9:13 am


There are many debates about the period after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century. For example, did it “fall” in the first place? I believe that the concomitant p0litical, social, and economic changes do warrant that word. But another question concerns the “barbarians,” who were mostly German peoples (there are some exceptions, such as the Iranian Alans and the Huns, whose specific provenance is unclear). Were they ethnically and politically coherent? Were they even peoples?

The extreme stylized positions might be outlined as follows:

– The barbarians who filled the political vacuum after the collapse of the late Roman state were coherent preexistent ethnic and political entities of German origin who migrated en masse and engaged in a folk wandering.

– Though their original provenance may have been in bands of German warriors from specific tribes, but the time they appear on the stage of history as we understand it, the barbarians were in fact a motley crew of opportunists of various origins, who adhered to a “barbarian” identity which was created de novo with the collapse of Rome. They were made by the collapse, they did not cause the collapse.

In the late 1990s, Norman Davies in The Isles presents an argument closer to the latter for the British Isles. That is, the Anglo-Saxon character of Britain was to a large effect a function of elite emulation and diffusion of a Germanic culture introduced by what was operationally a late Roman mercenary class. Davies alludes to texts which indicate a substantial native British population in Anglo-Saxon England centuries after the fall of Celtic kingdoms. This is in contrast to the apocalyptic vision of British monk Gildas, who depicts his Brythonic people fleeing before pagan Saxons and being driven into the sea. And, I have alluded to the possibility that the West Saxon monarchy, which later came to the center of English history during the Viking incursion, was in fact in origin Romano-British, rather than German (the early kings have Celtic names).

And yet England was always the most difficult case for cultural diffusion, because to a great extent Roman-British society did collapse. Both the British Celtic language and Christianity seem to have faded from the landscape, so the that the latter had to be reintroduced by Irish and continental European missionaries. Today, the genetics is more definitive, and it seems a substantial German migration did impact what became England, especially the east, what was the Saxon Shore. Though the majority of the ancestry of the people of England today seems to derive from people who were already resident in Britain in 400 A.D., a substantial enough minority seems to have greater affinities to people who were living in the stretch of land between the Netherlands and Denmark.

The case for mass migration on the continent of Europe (with the exception of much of the Balkans) is more difficult to make in a cut & dried fashion because the basic outlines of Romanness were much more intact in the centuries after the fall than in Britain. Though France and Lombardy may have names which derive from German tribes, there is not much that is German about these regions today, and frankly, even at the height of the barbarian rule when conquest and migration were fresh, the non-Roman overlay was likely a thin elite layer. Outside of Britan and the Balkans, the languages of the Roman Empire and the Christian religion maintained their dominance even after the fall of the Roman political order, a transformation of social norms, and the collapse of the economy.

And yet this does not deny the possibility of migration of peoples into this order. In Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe the historian Peter Heather argues that we must not neglect the likelihood that to some extent the arrival of the Germans was one of “folk wanderings.” That the identity of the Franks, Goths, and Lombards, did not emerge ad hoc and de novo through the accrual of military men around a tiny nucleus of German warlords and their retainers. That women and children were also part of the movement into the Roman Empire. Heather, in fact, depicts the Gothic arrival as one of destitute refugees fleeing the famine and chaos outside of the Pax Romana, and their subsequent militarization and rebellion as one forced upon them by the exigencies of their situation.

A new preprint on bioRxiv, Understanding 6th-Century Barbarian Social Organization and Migration through Paleogenomics, clarify these arguments in the case of the Lombards, who conquered Italy in the 6th century. The abstract:

Despite centuries of research, much about the barbarian migrations that took place between the fourth and sixth centuries in Europe remains hotly debated. To better understand this key era that marks the dawn of modern European societies, we obtained ancient genomic DNA from 63 samples from two cemeteries (from Hungary and Northern Italy) that have been previously associated with the Longobards, a barbarian people that ruled large parts of Italy for over 200 years after invading from Pannonia in 568 CE. Our dense cemetery-based sampling revealed that each cemetery was primarily organized around one large pedigree, suggesting that biological relationships played an important role in these early Medieval societies. Moreover, we identified genetic structure in each cemetery involving at least two groups with different ancestry that were very distinct in terms of their funerary customs. Finally, our data was consistent with the proposed long-distance migration from Pannonia to Northern Italy.

The preprint has genetic and isotopic results from two graveyards associated with elite Lombards of the 6th century. The one in late antique Pannonia would be in modern Hungary. The one in modern Italy is near Turin. The late 6th century was a time of tumult in the Roman Empire, as both Italy and the Balkans were subject to massive turnovers of the ethnic and political orders. The movement into Italy from the northeast was a typical one, prefigured by the Goths and other Germans before the Lombards.

From what I know, as far as German barbarians went, the Lombards were rather “raw” and non-Roman (in contrast, some tribes, such as the Goths and Franks, had had relationships with the Roman Empire for generations before they decided to take it over). Though they were nominally Christianized, and elite Lombards persisted in practicing pagan rituals in Italy down to the 8th century, over 100 years after their conquest of the peninsula.

The authors used a lot of “best of breed” methods with their large data set, but the ADMIXTURE plot really illustrates the result fine enough. The blue is associated with Northwest European ancestry (British and white Utah samples), red with Italian ancestry (Tuscan), and green(ish) with Iberian (Spanish mostly). The very light blue is 1K Genomes Finnish. Panel B is the graveyard in modern Hungary, and panel C is the one from northern Italy.

There is a strong correlation in the graves with those being of Northern European ancestry, and having high status via grave goods. The individuals also exhibited some segregation in the graves. Northern European ancestry and Southern European ancestry individuals were clustered together. The Pannonian individuals, whether Northern or Southern European, don’t seem to resemble ancient or modern Hungarians. The isotope analysis indicates that many of the individuals were highly mobile.

Finally, the data was robust enough to do a pedigree analysis. It looks like a lot of these individuals are related. If you look at the plots you can see groups with the label “Kindred.”

There is so much detail in the results that I won’t recapitulate. Just read the preprint and make sure to check out the supplementary text. What I will say is this.

  1. The Lombard migration seems to have been a migration of people of Northwest European heritage into Southern Europe.
  2. The migration occurred during the lifetime of some individuals. These were highly mobile individuals.
  3. There were associated groups with the Lombards, who were genetically distinct, and likely of lower status. Their Southern European character is also distinct from the native population of Pannonia in the case of panel A.
  4. The Lombards themselves had Northern European ancestry which was somewhat heterogenous (probably different tribes and ethnicities). The shift away from Finnish ancestry probably indicates sampling more from western and opposed to central Europe.
  5. Admixture with the local populations and other post-Roman groups began early on.

The ethnocultural distinctiveness of the Lombards is clear from the textual evidence. The genetic data here confirm that in totality. But, The Geography of Recent Ancestry Across Europe, also highlighted a lot of deep population structure within modern Italy, and could not discern much impact of barbarian migration outside of the Balkans across their data set. Why?

It is rather clear that there were population declines across the West Roman Empire in the years after the Gothic Wars. If you read the textual evidence you imagine some sort of catastrophe going on. In human terms it was catastrophic. On the scale of economics, it was catastrophic. But in terms of population genetics, the long-term impact was not that extreme. The local population structure was not much altered because the Roman population base was so high that even a large decline did not induce bottleneck effects, and the German elite was also small enough it did not much perturb the underlying structure which had roots back to the period before the Roman Empire. Even in the first generations of Lombards in Italy, which is the Collego data set reflects, there was intermarriage between German people and others.

The demographic impact of the German migrations was huge on culture, politics, and economics. But it was not huge on population genetics.

June 23, 2011

Celts to Anglo-Saxons, in light of updated assumptions

Over the past week there have been three posts which I’ve put up which are related. Two of them have a straightforward relation, Britons, English, Germans, and collective action and Britons, English, and Dutch. But the third might not seem related to the other two, We stand on the shoulders of cultural giants, but it is. When we talk about things such as the spread of language through “elite emulation” or “population replacement” they’re rather vague catchall terms. We don’t decompose them mechanistically into their components to explore whether they can explain what they purport to explain. Rather, we take these phenomena for granted in a very simplistic black box fashion. We know what they’re describing on the face of it. “We” here means people without a background in sociolinguistics, obviously.

To give an example of the pitfall of this method, in much of Rodney Stark’s work on sociology of religion (the production before his recent quasi-apologetic material) his thinking was crisp and logical, but the psychological models were intuitive and naive and tended to get little input from the latest findings in cognitive science. In One True God he actually offers an explanation for why ...

June 17, 2011

Britons, English, Germans, and collective action

Quite often rather amusing articles which operate in the malleable zone between genetics and nationalism pop into my RSS feed (thanks to google query alerts). But this piece from Spiegel Online article, Britain Is More Germanic than It Thinks, actually appeals to some legitimate research in making a tongue-in-cheek nationalistic argument that the affinity between the Germans and the English is stronger than the latter would wish to admit. The article starts out with the interesting nationalist back story:

Until now, the so-called Minimalists have set the tone in British archeology. They believe in what they call an “elite transfer”, in which a small caste of Germanic noble warriors, perhaps a few thousand, placed themselves at the top of society in a coup of sorts, and eventually even displaced the Celtic language with their own. Many contemporary Britons, not overly keen on having such a close kinship with the Continent, like this scenario.

Thomas Sheppard, a museum curator, discovered this sentiment almost a century ago. In 1919, officers asked for his assistance after they accidentally discovered the roughly 1,500-year-old grave of an Anglo-Saxon woman while digging trenches in eastern England.

Sheppard concluded that the woman’s bleached bones came from “conquerors from ...

May 10, 2010

Say it with me: Völkerwanderung

Filed under: barbarians,goths,History,peter heather,roman,rome — Razib Khan @ 3:47 am

toneePeter Heather’s new book, Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe, exhibits none of the minor faults which I noted in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. Heather manages to robustly balance the need for both breadth and depth, and I would even offer that this semi-sequel to his previous book, The Fall of the Roman Empire, is a superior piece of scholarship in relation to its predecessor (if a bit less compelling as narrative because of the weighting toward archaeology as opposed to literary sources). The author reports that he’s been working for 15 years on Empires and Barbarians, and it shows in the wide spread of sources and multidisciplinary nature of the argument. And that argument is in short an overturning the post-World War II orthodoxy among archaeologists, and a lesser extent historians, that cultural evolution occurs overwhelmingly through a process of the diffusion of memes, and is rarely accompanied by the flow or replacement of genes. This model is a counterpoint to the pre-World War II conception of the shift of language being a consequence of the shift of nations; ergo, it was once presumed that the rise of the English and the fall of the Celtic British occurred via the driving out of the latter by the former toward the maritime fringes of Wales and Cornwall. After World War II the sources were reinterpreted so that the Anglo-Saxon tribes were refashioned into very small compact bands of warriors who toppled the old Roman-British elite, and imposed their own language and cultural forms on the local populace (Norman Davies’ takes this model as the default in The Isles). If this was the outlook when it came to Britain, which became England and witnessed the extinction of the Celtic and Latin languages as well as the Christian religion with the arrival of the Germans, then naturally an even more skeptical take on mass migration would hold for the post-Roman German states of the Franks, Visigoths and Lombards who had a far more marginal cultural affect on the local Roman population (in late antiquity and the early Dark Ages the sources distinguish between the indigenous Romans and the various Germanic tribes decades after the fall of the Western Empire). In Empires and Barbarians Peter Heather reiterates that the view that the German tribes replacing the Roman era populations is false. But, he also objects strongly to the post-World War II consensus which would tend to minimize the extent of migration, population movement, and demographic displacement. In short, Heather wishes to rehabilitate the Völkerwanderung.

800px-Invasions_of_the_RomaIn previous posts I have outlined a theoretical framework which implies non-trivial migration of peoples, so I am amenable to Heather’s revisionism. In fact, I was a bit surprised that Heather outlines a process very similar to what I envisage in its broad sociohistorical parameters, though his knowledge of the particular instantiations of the general processes in the context of post-Roman Central Europe naturally surpasses what little I knew. But before I get to that, I would like to enter into the record a major objection I have to the argument in Empires and Barbarians. Many times within the text Peter Heather contends that the centuries long linguistic continuity of particular Germanic tribes, for instance the Burgundians, necessarily entails that the barbarians had to have brought women on their migrations. He marshals plenty of other literary and archaeological data to support this contention. For example, literary sources and analysis of burial grounds of the Goths from this period in the Balkans attest to the existence of a wagon train of women (and children) who followed the barbarian warbands along the Roman roads. But the argument from linguistics seems very weak. We have copious cases where native-speaking women are not necessary, at least in preponderance, to perpetuate a language. Heather gives one example within the text itself, he notes that the current data seem to imply that the majority of the women whom the Norse brought to Iceland were not of Norse origin. Rather, they were likely to be Irish to British. And yet no one doubts Icelandic’s Scandinavian affinity as a language. Similarly, across much of Latin America the vast majority of the population derives from the unions of Spanish men with indigenous women. The offspring, and the societies they created, are Spanish-speaking (excluding the Guarani bilingualism in Paraguay). Someone with a better grasp of the details of sociolinguistics can enlighten us on the exact details of how language is transmitted, but I’m rather sure that women are not a necessary precondition for linguistic continuity. In fact, parts of Latin America, such as Argentina, offer up an example where a continuous flow of men could have resulted in a post-Roman Germanic society where most of the ancestry was German, even if all the female ancestors during the founding generation were Romans (Heather observes that in some cases such as England and northern Gaul it looks as if there was a continuous migration of Germans for decades, if not centuries).

But that is a minor quibble in a book which is dense with data and rich with analysis. Heather’s argument is eminently reasonable and moderate. Many of the more extreme advocates of a post-modern understanding of ancient tribal identity presume that groups such as the “Goths” could emerge almost spontaneously from a welter of infinitely diverse populations (you know someone has lots of method but little knowledge when they constantly use quotations around the most banal and unproblematic terms). Examples of Roman senators raising their sons wearing trousers and speaking in Gothic can be offered up as the norm, so that a Gothic elite could emerge from the local population almost immediately. All that was required was a tiny elite of warriors to trigger the emulation from below. In this way cultural forms of the Vandals, Goths, and Anglo-Saxons swept across Europe with only trivial flows of people. It also dovetails with the revision that the Roman Empire did not fall, that it was not invaded, rather, it evolved and transformed. Heather is not convinced that the persistence of tribal identities such as that of the Goths for centuries in an environment where they were heavily outnumbered by Latin speaking natives could have persisted if their original identity was so tenuous, fluid and open. Rather, he seems to argue that there was an ethic core, to which some could assimilate, but which had at its heart an original demographic pulse from Central Europe. I find this persuasive because I have become convinced that cultural ideas move across societies far less quickly, at least in the pre-modern past, than we had long assumed. The Goths and other barbarians brought a suite of particular, distinctive, linguistic, religious and sartorial characteristics as an integrated unit, and persisted in their distinctiveness for generations, and sometimes centuries. In the post-Roman world of continental Western Europe they were eventually assimilated by the Roman substrate, and I see little evidence of their genetic impact. They were truly dwarfed by the local populations, but that can remain true even if a whole Central European tribe moves en masse into the Roman Empire. A tribe of 50,000 is a drop in the bucket demographically in many Roman provinces, but if 10,000 of those were men under arms, in the late Roman period this entailed significant capability of projecting and enforcing force. In Britain the case is somewhat different, there are genetic data which imply that some substantial replacement did occur, in particular on the “Saxon Shore.” These data are perfectly understandable when one considers the near total abolition of Romano-British norms and forms from the lowlands of what became England by the 7th century, at sharp variance with the dominance of Romanitas among the Franks, Lombards and Visigoths.

To me the falsity of the post-World War II archaeological consensus in the case of the fall of Roman Empire is so probable that Heather’s debunking is not of particular interest. Rather, I was more curious as to the underlying rationale or causes he provides of the migration. His argument is complex and multi-layered, but one aspect which I found congenial was his contention that the relatively low intensity form of agriculture practiced in German Central Europe did not produce sufficient surplus to satisfy the demand for luxury goods by the free class of German males. The taste for luxury goods emerged due to proximity to the Roman Empire, which exported them in return for region-specific luxuries (amber) or commodities. The migration of adventurers and soldiers from beyond the limes into the Roman Empire, often in military service, predates the barbarian migrations. Rather, Heather argues that the push of the Huns in the late 4rd and early 5th century, combined with the economic pull of the wealth of the Roman Empire, caused mass simultaneous movement of warrior elites from the German heartland during this period. A movement of peoples, not a band of brothers. While the Roman state could have handled one or two tribes, as it had in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the simultaneous push from the mouth of the Rhine down to the mouth of the Danube was too much. Though some of the German groups were defeated, others were not, and once the initial breakthrough occurred there was a positive feedback loop as other tribes rushed in to take advantage of the weakness of the Empire.

The selective migration of warrior elites and their families during this period had major long-term effects. Heather suggests that it was during this period that one saw the transition of much of East-Central Europe, from Poland down to Bohemia and the north Balkans, from being one of Germanic speech to Slavic speech. German peasants no doubt remained after the emigration of their elites after the collapse of the Roman limes. And Heather does not believe they were exterminated, rather, he points to literary and archaeological evidence which suggest that there was a set of norms among Slavic migratory bands to absorb and assimilate other marginalized groups (interestingly, this was definitely the case with the Russian expansion into Siberia, where many Muslim Turkic groups were absorbed into a Russian Orthodox identity and became Cossacks). Heather implies that part of the Slavic expansion was fueled by a change in mode of production, a switch to more intensive farming techniques which produced population growth and demic diffusion in all directions, in particular toward Poland and the Baltic more generally. Because of the relative lack of literary evidence this section of the book is not totally persuasive, but the fact remains that much of what was German in 500 was Slavic in 1000.

Empires and Barbarians concludes at the year 1000. By this time intensive farming and urban civilization, at least in fragments, had reached most of Europe. Local elites were no longer transitory in their expectations, so a mass migration of a whole ethnic group was no longer in anyone’s interest (much to gain, but much to lose!). The non-Mediterranean farming system of three-fields, as well as improved plowing technologies, had shifted the demographic center of gravity north. Extreme gradients of elite wealth and social complexity which had characterized the Europe of the Pax Romana were no longer operative. Without gradients there would naturally be less flow. The great chaotic demographic transient between the rise of Rome and the emergence of medieval Europe was over.

Note: Empires of the Silk Road and The Horse, the Wheel, and Language are excellent complements to Empires and Barbarians .

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