The genetics of the Lombard folk migration


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.

Disruptive ages happen…and they happen fast

A friend of mine was pointing out that there is something of an anti-civilizational polemic in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. It’s the same sort of impulse which also asserts that “Rome never fell it evolved” and that the “Dark Ages” is a myth. I pretty much agree with Scott Alexander’s take. The datum that pollution due to lead did not match that of Classical Antiquity until the early modern period is one I remember as a searing one from The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. You can’t really argue with that.

After reading The Fall of Rome I had a period when I read a lot of stuff on late antiquity. For example Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000. Brown is a serious scholar, and I’ve read several more of his books. But, I do think it shares something with earlier scholarship, and some of the more polemic recent screeds of Rodney Stark (see How the West Won), and that is that Christianity is viewed as a good in and of itself.

That is, if there is one thing that can be said for the period after the fall of Rome, it is that Christianity transcended its Mediterranean focus, and became a truly international religion, and a light unto the nations. If you believe that Christianity is true, then details about population collapse and a recession of cultural productivity matter a lot less than otherwise.

I think the economic historical evidence on the balance does lead to the conclusion that the Roman Empire achieved an optimum of economic development during the Antonine period of the 2nd century A.D. through classical efficiencies on the margin (e.g., specialization through trade, bringing all of the land into production, etc.). These levels were not again reached until after 1000 A.D. in Europe, though comparisons are not entirely apt because innovations such as the moldboard plow and windmills allowed for increases in genuine economic productivity.

The bigger question that looms in the background though is would it have been better to be a median Roman citizen or a median subject of a Dark Age warlord? I don’t have a strong opinion on this, especially when it comes to the ability to consume above subsistence.  It seems likely that the far worst treatment of slaves in places like Sicily than anything serfs were subject to (though serfdom only truly came into its own during the end of the Dark Ages) should be weighed in the calculus, but the Roman peace was also a genuine peace. The petty conflicts persistent at a local level in the Dark Ages may have made the life of a typical peasant less secure than for Roman citizens.

Rather constant reports of subjects and citizens fleeing from strong political units, or more “advanced” nations (e.g., the early American frontier), tell us something real. People valued freedom. But not everyone fled, so we’re probably seeing a bias in terms of who attempted to escape the shackles of civilization (e.g., young able-bodied single men, in particular, loom large in these reports, and I think there’s a reason for that).

Roman cultural history has almost no demographic imprint


Several friends have asked that I weigh in the recent dust-up between Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mary Beard. I haven’t for a few reasons. First, I can’t really be bothered to go incognito and see every detail of Taleb’s argument, as he has me blocked on Twitter (he called me a fucking idiot or something at some point). Second, the passion around this topic has little to do with genetics or ancient history from what I can see, two topics which I am actually interested in. Rather, it’s more about contemporary geopolitics. This is interesting too, and I have opinions on that, but I try really hard to keep history and politics in separate silos unless I am explicit about the connections and relevance. That’s because I don’t see classical history as simply something instrumentally important for modern times, but interesting in and of itself (the same goes for population genetics).

And for what it’s worth, Mary Beard says the same in her conclusion to SPQR. The ancients were ancients. Let them be what they were.

That being said, as someone with knowledge sets in ancient history and historical population genetics, I will make a few statements and let others interpret them however they wish (to be frank, I’m not going to cede ground to any of the experts I’ve seen who have spoken on the intersection of these two knowledge sets, so I figured it was time to put something somewhere beside Twitter).

* The prior probability that a Roman officer of the period in Britain would have visible black African ancestry (as seems clear by the cartoon, though no one has asked the cartoonists what their intent was) probability seems rather low. But it is non-zero, because a small minority of Roman subjects and citizens would have been defined as black by their physical appearance if they were alive today (they are mentioned passingly in the literature and texts from the period). Including in Britain.

* The probability conditional that he was based on an officer in Britain who was a native of Tidis is low, but higher. Several historians have pointed out in defense of the cartoon’s plausibility that there were many North Africans in Roman service, as well as prominent North Africans in Roman history (to name three of note, Septimius Severus, Tertullian, and St. Augustine). Whole tribes of what we’d today term Berbers enrolled in the Roman military a federates.

There are several separate issues to note. First, of the many North African genotypes I’ve seen detectable Sub-Saharan ancestry is found in almost all of them. But, many (most?) North Africans do not look visibly of Sub-Saharan African ancestry (see list of heads of states of Algeria). Second, both historical and genetic evidence indicates that this admixture from Sub-Saharan Africa is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) from the period after Islam and the rise of a much bigger trans-Saharan trade (see Genomic Ancestry of North Africans Supports Back-to-Africa Migrations). Modern North Africa does have a large population today of people who are black or of obvious part-black ancestry, but this is due to the slave trade under Islam, and not antiquity.

* As evidence of the lack of non-European ancestry the paper The fine-scale genetic structure of the British population has been submitted. This is a great paper with best-of-breed methods and a massive data set of native English, with regional data. How do we resolve textual and archaeological evidence of people born outside of Britain during the Roman period in Britain with their lack of long-term genetic footprint among native modern Britains?

These sorts of questions need to be integrated in a broader context of the demography and genetics of antiquity that we have. On the whole looking at papers on modern and ancient DNA I am surprised by the lack of perturbation on the genetic structure attributable to the Roman period across Western Eurasia. I will offer two likely reasons that are related.

First, Classical civilization was an urban one, and the textual evidence we have is going to be highly skewed culturally in terms of our perception. The Roman world was predominantly written in cultured Latin and Greek (from what I have read the early translations of the Bible are indicative of a more pedestrian background of Christians due to the class markers of their lexical choices and idioms). But it was not necessarily spoken in cultured Latin and Greek across vast swaths of its territory. Even in St. Augustine’s time Punic was still spoken in the North African countryside, while the persistence and resurgence of Basque and Berber, and perhaps Brythonic Celtic in Britain, attest to vast reservoirs of people who were under the Roman peace, but not of it (also, the persistence of Albanian from a native Illyrian substrate). Because of the resources historians have on hand, text, there is going to be a major lacunae in our understanding and perception of the past. We hear the urban elites speaking to us. Not the rural majority.

Second, Classical civilization was an urban one, and this might have a major impact on the demographic consequences of migration. At any given size the effective breeding population is smaller than the census population, and the breeding population may not be representative of the overall population in terms of their genetic character. More specifically, it seems highly possible that the cosmopolitan urban Roman cities were massive demographic sinks. Rome before the Gothic Wars was a very populous city, not too far on the path of decline from its early imperial peak. But by the year 600 it had decreased its population to the point that vast swaths of the city were abandoned. Where did these people go? No doubt some of the elites scattered. Cassiodorus simply moved when barbarism came to his front step. But this was less possible for the urban proletariat. There is strong evidence that slaves in the ancient world were not replacing themselves reproductively due to brutality under which they lived. Some of the same was likely true of the urban proletariat.

* There is a difference between the inheritance pattern of culture and genes. In The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe this passage has always stuck out for me: “There is relatively little common ancestry shared between the Italian peninsula and other locations, and what there is seems to derive mostly from longer ago than 2,500 ya…The rate of genetic common ancestry between pairs of Italian individuals seems to have been fairly constant for the past 2,500 years, which combined with significant structure within Italy suggests a constant exchange of migrants between coherent subpopulations.”

The straightforward conclusion from this is that the Latinization of the Italian tribes and Magna Graecia occurred with no great demographic transformation. Modern Italy has within it the ghost of tribes long gone. This is notable because if you read the historical records of the Roman period you see evidence of trade, transport, and migration. But the genetic data would not lead you to this conclusion outside of Sicily and a few parts of Southern Italy.*

Above I have presented my reasoning for why this might be. But I think what it tells us that genetic data can informs us when there is a demographic turnover, and therefore a cultural turnover, but it will miss cultural turnovers which don’t have demographic impacts. These are many. To give a few examples, the rise of Islam in South Asia and Southeast Asia, the Latinization of the Western Mediterranean, the de-Latinization of Britain after the withdrawal of Roman legion and before the mass arrival of Saxons, and arrival of Buddhism in East Asia. All these are massive historical and cultural events, but they would not be visible in the genetic record.

If you want to learn about Roman history there are many books you could read. But I do recommend you try Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. It’s a nice materialist take, and I think it gets to the underlying dynamics of institutional fragility of ancient civilization which was so easily wiped away by barbarism.

Addendum: The migration of the Slavs, Anglo-Saxons, and the Islamic Empires, all seem to differ from antiquity in having a major demographic impact. Why? In the case of massive institutional collapse, as in the first two cases, very old dynamics of inter-group competition arise, and famine probably does the rest of the trick. For Islam, it was a genuinely cosmopolitan civilization, with a more complex gradation between free and slave than in antiquity. Though it was quite brutal, African and Turkish slaves became free, and their genetic impact can be seen throughout the Islamic world.

* Like Spain, a substantial proportion of the Sicilian gene flow exchange is almost certainly due to the Islamic period. There are segments of North African and Sub-Saharan ancestry in Sicilians, albeit to a smaller extent than in Spain (in keeping with the shorter time period as part of the Islamic world).