1,400 years old mystery of origins of Avars elucidated with ancient DNA

1,400 years old mystery of origins of Avars elucidated with ancient DNA HU
Who were the Avars? Less known than Attiia’s Huns, they were their more successful successors, who ruled much of Central and Eastern Europe for almost 250 years. We know that they came from Central Asia in the sixth century CE, but ancient authors and modern historians debated their provenance. Had their core group arrived from Western Eurasia, or were they descendants of the Mongolia-based empire of the Rouran, known as formidable enemies of China?

Now, a multidisciplinary research team of geneticists, archaeologists and historians from the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, the ELTE University and the Institute of Archaeogenomics of Budapest, the Harvard Medical School in Boston, the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and other institutions from Europe, Asia and North America obtained and studied the first ancient genomes from the most important Avar elite sites discovered in contemporary Hungary.

This study traces the genetic origin of the Avar elite to a faraway region of East Central Asia.

It provides direct genetic evidence for one of the largest and most rapid long-distance migrations in ancient human history. The research will be published in the April issue of Cell and is already available online. This research is a part of HistoGenes, an ERC-funded project investigating the period of 400 to 900 CE in the Carpathian Basin from a multidisciplinary perspective.

In the 560s, the Avars established an empire that lasted more than 200-years, centered in the Carpathian Basin. Despite much scholarly debate their initial homeland and origin has remained unclear. They are primarily known from historical sources of their enemies, the Byzantines, who wondered about the origin of the fearsome Avar warriors after their sudden appearance in Europe. Had they come from the Rouran empire in the Mongolian steppe (which had just been destroyed by the Turks), or should one believe the Turks who strongly disputed such a prestigious legacy? Historians have wondered whether that was a well-organised migrant group or a mixed band of fugitives. Archaeological research has pointed to many parallels between the Carpathian Basin and Eurasian nomadic artefacts (weapons, vessels, horse harness), for instance a lunula-shaped pectoral of gold used as a symbol of power. We also know that the Avars introduced the stirrup in Europe. Yet we could not trace their origin in the wide Eurasian steppes.

Grave of an avar warrior
Photgrapher: Szilvia Döbröntey-David; leader archeologist: Tamara Hága

In this study 66 individuals from the Carpathian Basin were analysed, including the eight richest Avar graves ever discovered, overflowing with golden objects. The study included other individuals from the region prior to and during the Avar age “We address a question that has been a mystery for more than 1400 years: who were the Avar elites, mysterious founders of an empire that almost crushed Constantinople and for more than 200 years ruled the lands of modern-day Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Austria, Croatia and Serbia?” explains Johannes Krause, senior author of the study. The Avars did not leave written records about their history and these first genome-wide data provide robust clues about their origins. “The historical contextualization of the archaeogenetic results allowed us to narrow the timing of the proposed Avar migration. They covered more than 5000 km in a few years from Mongolia to the Caucasus, and after ten more years settled in what is now Hungary. This is the fastest long-distance migration in human history that we can reconstruct up to that point,,” explains Choongwon Jeong, co-senior author of the study.

Guido Gnecchi-Ruscone, the lead author of the study, adds: “Besides their clear affinity to Northeast Asia and their likely origin due to the fall of the Rouran Empire, we also see that the 7th-century Avar period elites show 20-30% of additional non-local ancestry, likely associated with the North Caucasus and the Western Asian Steppe, which could suggest further migration from the Steppe after their arrival in the 6th century.” The East Asian ancestry is found in individuals from several sites in the core settlement area between the Danube and Tisza rivers in modern day central Hungary. However, outside the primary settlement region we find high variability in inter-individual levels of admixture, especially in the south-Hungarian site of Kölked. This suggests an immigrant Avars elite ruling a diverse population with the help of a heterogeneous local elite. These exciting results show how much potential there is in the unprecedented collaboration between geneticists, archaeologists, historians and anthropologists for the research on the ‘Migration period’ in the first millennium CE.

Institutes and researchers of ELTE taking part in the project: 
ELTE Faculty of Humanities, Institute of Archaeological Sciences (Tivadar Vida, Zsófia Rácz, István Koncz) 
ELTE Faculty of Science, Department of Biological Anthropology (Tamás Hajdu, Tamás Szeniczey)

Cover photo: Déri Museum in Debrecen, photographer and leader archeologist: Tamara Hága