Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Avar Sex And Marriage Patterns From Ancient DNA

The Avars (see also here and here) were a historically attested Altaic (probably Turkic) language speaking people of Eastern Europe who expanded as far as Hungary and included much of what is now Ukraine.

The Avar Khaganate and surroundings circa 602 CE.
Image from Wikipedia

The Avars conquered a region that had previously been Slavic for two or three hundred years, although that linguistic character wasn't all that old at the time. Slavic expansion started sometime around the 200s CE in the Kiev culture.

In Hungary, a couple of centuries after the fall of the Avar Khaganate (567 to 822 CE), a small group of Uralic language speaking barbarian Magyar conquerers from the East would arrive, and transfer their language through elite dominance to Hungary which gave rise to the modern Hungarian language, even though they had little demic (i.e. population genetic) impact.

The Avar Khaganate period overlaps heavily with the Migration Period of "barbarian" peoples in Europe.

The latest 2024 study of ancient Avar genetics, following 2020 and 2022 studies linked above, is making headlines at CNN, mostly because it shows that many elite men had children with more than one woman, and that many elite women had children with more than one man, in many cases the multiple partners were siblings. 

This doesn't necessary indicate polygamy, although that is the mostly likely explanation for the men who had children with multiple partners, as there could be successive marriages in an age where early deaths were common. The women who had children with more than one man were probably widows who remarried a man who was a relative of their first husband.

The detail of the ancient DNA results combined with anthropological data and historical attestations from neighboring literate societies is so fine and rich that one could write an epic historical fiction narrative about it that would correspond fairly closely to reality, with the rise and fall of an empire, the replacement of an Avar lord with a new one in one location, and lots of juicy romantic and marital connections. 
Ancient DNA is spilling more secrets about the Avars, a fearsome people who built a mysterious empire that ruled much of Central and Eastern Europe for 250 years from the mid-sixth century.

Primarily known from the accounts of adversaries, the Avars confounded the Byzantines with formidable horseback warriors who appeared suddenly on their doorstep. The enigmatic nomads came en masse from the Mongolian steppe in what was one of the biggest and fastest long-haul migrations in ancient history.

With opulent graves but no written records, the empire and its people have remained largely in the shadows of history until recently. But a landmark April 2022 study involving ancient DNA taken from the graves of the Avar elite shed light on the empire’s far-flung origins.
Now, a new study analyzing the remains of 424 people buried in four cemeteries unearthed in Hungary has revealed details about Avar family and social life and how the newcomers interacted with the population of their adopted homeland. 
. . .
The researchers were able to build detailed family trees or pedigrees, the largest of which spanned nine generations across 2½ centuries. The team discovered that around 300 of the individuals had a close relative buried in the same cemetery.

The analysis showed that men stayed in their community after marriage, while women married outside their original community — a pattern known as patrilocality.

“For all the mothers, we don’t find the parents. The parents aren’t at the site. While all the males are the descendants of the founders,” said Guido Alberto Gnecchi-Ruscone, lead author of the study that appeared Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Study of mitochondrial DNA, which reveals the female line, showed a high variability, suggesting that the women who married into the Avar groups were from different places, according to Gnecchi-Ruscone, a postdoctoral researcher of archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. They still shared a “steppe” genetic ancestry, indicating that they were probably not conquered local people. 
. . . 

What’s more, the study found, it was relatively common for both men and women in Avar society to have children with multiple partners.

In the case of men, researchers found two partners in 10 cases, three partners in four cases and four partners in one case. Having multiple wives may have been relatively common in the general population as well as the elite, the study authors wrote.

The team also uncovered multiple cases of closely related male individuals having offspring with the same female partner: three pairs of fathers and sons, two pairs of full brothers, and one sibling of paternal half brothers and an uncle and nephew.

Similar “levirate unions” that took place after the death of the woman’s husband existed in other Eurasian steppe societies, according to the study, and suggests that the Avars, who abandoned their nomadic way of life based on herding and became more settled shortly after arriving in Europe, clung to some aspects of their former way of life. 

From CNNThe new study and its abstract are as follows:

From AD 567–568, at the onset of the Avar period, populations from the Eurasian Steppe settled in the Carpathian Basin for approximately 250 years. Extensive sampling for archaeogenomics (424 individuals) and isotopes, combined with archaeological, anthropological and historical contextualization of four Avar-period cemeteries, allowed for a detailed description of the genomic structure of these communities and their kinship and social practices. 
We present a set of large pedigrees, reconstructed using ancient DNA, spanning nine generations and comprising around 300 individuals. We uncover a strict patrilineal kinship system, in which patrilocality and female exogamy were the norm and multiple reproductive partnering and levirate unions were common. 
The absence of consanguinity indicates that this society maintained a detailed memory of ancestry over generations. 
These kinship practices correspond with previous evidence from historical sources and anthropological research on Eurasian Steppe societies. 
Network analyses of identity-by-descent DNA connections suggest that social cohesion between communities was maintained via female exogamy
Finally, despite the absence of major ancestry shifts, the level of resolution of our analyses allowed us to detect genetic discontinuity caused by the replacement of a community at one of the sites. This was paralleled with changes in the archaeological record and was probably a result of local political realignment.
Guido Alberto Gnecchi-Ruscone, et al., "Network of large pedigrees reveals social practices of Avar communities" Nature (April 24, 2024) (open access).

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