Genetic secrets of early medieval warriors revealed from German burial site

A dozen lavish medieval graves holding the remains of Thirteen people have finally spilled their genetic secrets, now that analysts have constructed a family tree of the people buried there.

Researchers were the first who found the early medieval burials — which hold the bodies of Ten adults and three infants — in 1962 in the southern German city of Niederstotzingen.

The contents of the graves dazzled archaeologists, who immediately got to work studying the ornate armor, bridle gear, jewelry and swords covered with the individuals.

But they could not figure out how these people (some of whom were warriors) were related.

Now, a new genetic analysis of 8 of these individuals reveals that 5 of them were direct relatives, but the other three were not related at all.

It’s possible that some of these unrelated people were “adopted as children from another region to be trained as warriors, which was a common practice at the time,” the Specialists wrote in the study, which was published online yesterday (Sept. 5) in the journal Science Advances.

An ornamented double-edged sword and armor from the Longobards (also known as Lombards, a Germanic group) that archaeologists found in grave 6.
An ornamented double-edged sword and armor from the Longobards (also known as Lombards, a Germanic group) that archaeologists found in grave 6.

 

Germanic tribes

The graves in question belong to the Alemanni, a group of Germanic clans who lived in the region spanning modern-day Germany, France, Switzerland, and Austria.

After the Alemanni were defeated by Clovis I, the first king of the Franks, in A.D. 497, they became part of the Duchy of the Merovingian Kingdom. When this happened, the Alemanni’s funerary practices changed; they started burying their households (known as familia) in richly furnished graves, called adelsgrablege.

This particular adelsgrablege was likely utilized by the same family across two generations, from about A.D. 580 to 630, the researchers stated.

Even though some of the buried people were not genetically related to the familia, the common burial suggests that they “were raised with equal regard in the familia,” the researchers wrote in the study.

In effect, these medieval burials demonstrate that both kinship and fellowship were held in equal regard, the researchers said.

The genetics analysis on the 8 individuals also indicated that 6 of them were likely from northern and eastern Europe, while two were likely from the Mediterranean region, the researchers found.

Another genetic analysis of 11 of the individuals (which included the eight already studied) revealed that they were likely male, the researchers added.

The presence of women’s jewelry in one of the graves suggests that it held females at one time, however, these women were likely exhumed and possibly reburied, the researchers said.

Male-only burials were not uncommon in the Merovingian Kingdom, they noted, likely because these burials were for male warriors or nobility.

Among the northern and eastern European group, 5 were second-degree relatives, meaning they shared great grandparents.

Moreover, an examination of the strontium and oxygen isotopes in their teeth (an isotope is a variation of an element that has a different number of neutrons in its nucleus) revealed that these individuals were born locally, in Germany. But, even though they were closely related, 4 of the 5 had “culturally diverse grave goods,” the researchers said.

These findings show that in Niederstotzingen, “diverse cultural affiliations could be appropriated even within the same family across just two generations,” the researchers said in the study.

The study sheds light on Niederstotzingen, which is one of the most famous early medieval burial sites in Germany, said Christian Meyer, an osteo- and funerary archaeologist at OsteoARC, the Osteo Archaeological Research Center in Goslar, Germany, who was not involved in the examination.

The results “prove once more that early medieval society was indeed fluid and adaptive.

Every complex analysis that leads to significant new results should also make us re-evaluate pre-conceived notions about kinship, grave goods, and overall burial rites. It is always much more complicated and nuanced than it may appear at first glance.”

This decorated comb, carved from an antler, was found in a warrior’s grave in Niederstotzingen, Germany.
This decorated comb, carved from an antler, was found in a warrior’s grave in Niederstotzingen, Germany.

 

A Byzantine helmet that was found in grave 12.
A Byzantine helmet that was found in grave 12.
P. Natasha Covers Classical Archaeology news and has been with Histecho since 2017. She has a Master's degree in MA Archaeology from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. A California native, she also holds a Bachelor of science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.