Early Medieval Alemannic graveyard shows diverse cultural and genetic makeup


Open access Ancient genome-wide analyses infer kinship structure in an Early Medieval Alemannic graveyard, by O’Sullivan et al., Science (2018) 4(9):eaao1262

Interesting excerpts:


The Alemanni were a confederation of Germanic tribes that inhabited the eastern Upper Rhine basin and surrounding region (Fig. 1) (1). Roman ethnographers mentioned the Alemanni, but historical records from the 3rd to the 6th century CE contain no regular description of these tribes (2). The upheaval that occurred during the European Migration Period (Völkerwanderung) partly explains the interchangeability of nomenclature with the contemporaneous Suebi people of the same region and periods of geographic discontinuity in the historical record (3). This diverse nomenclature reflects centuries of interactions between Romans and other Germanic groups such as the Franks, Burgundians, Thuringians, Saxons, and Bavarians. With the defeat of the Alemanni by Clovis I of the Franks in 497 CE, Alamannia became a subsumed Duchy of the Merovingian Kingdom. This event solidified the naming of the inhabitants of this region as Alemanni (3). From the 5th to the 8th century CE, integration between the Franks and the Alemanni was reflected by changed burial practices, with households (familia) buried in richly furnished graves (Adelsgrablege) (4). The splendor of these Adelsgräber served to demonstrate the kinship structure, wealth, and status of the familia and also the power of the Franks (Personenverbandstaaten, a system of power based on personal relations rather than fixed territory). Because inclusion in familia during the Merovingian period was not necessarily based on inheritance or provenance, debate continues on the symbolism of these burial rites (5).

The 7th century CE Alemannic burial site at Niederstotzingen in southern Germany, used circa 580 to 630 CE, represents the best-preserved example of such an Alemannic Adelsgrablege. (…)


Strontium and oxygen isotope data from the enamel showed that most individuals are local rather than migrants (Table 1, table S2, and fig. S2), except for individuals 10 and 3B. (…)

Analysis of uniparental markers

mtDNA haplogroups were successfully assigned to all 13 individuals (Table 1). Notably, there are three groups of individuals that share, among the assigned positions, identical haplotypes: individuals 4, 9, and 12B in haplogroup X2b4; individuals 1 and 3A in haplogroup K1a; and individuals 2 and 5 in haplogroup K1a1b2a1a.

Most individuals belong to the R1b haplogroup (individuals 1, 3A, 3C, 6, 9, 12A, 12B, and 12C), which has the highest frequency (>70%) in modern western European populations (20). Five individuals (1, 3A, 9, 12B, and 12C) share the same marker (Z319) defining haplogroup R1b1a2a1a1c2b2b1a1 [=ISOGG R1b1a1a2a1a1c2b2b1a1a] (…) individuals 1, 3A, and 6 have R1b lineage and marker Z347 (R1b1a2a1a1c2b2b) [=ISOGG R1b1a1a2a1a1c2b2b], which belongs to the same male ancestral lineage as marker Z319 [i.e. all R1b-U106]. Individual 3B instead carries NRY haplogroup G2a2b1, which is rare in modern north, west, and east European populations (<5%), only reaching common abundance in the Caucasus (>70%), southern Europe, and the Near East (10 to 15%)

Genome-wide capture

PCA plot of Niederstotzingen individuals, modern west Eurasians, and selected ancient Europeans. Genome-wide ancient data were projected against modern west Eurasian populations. Colors on PCA indicate more general Eurasian geographic boundaries than countries: dark green, Caucasus; bright green, eastern Europe; yellow, Sardinia and Canary Islands; bright blue, Jewish diaspora; bright purple, western and central Europe; red, southern Europe; dark brown, west Asia; light purple, Spain; dark purple, Russia; pale green, Middle East; orange, North Africa. The transparent circles serve to highlight the genetic overlap between regions of interest.

Genomically, the individuals buried at Niederstotzingen can be split into two groups: Niederstotzingen North (1, 3A, 6, 9, 12B, and 12C), who have genomic signals that most resemble modern northern and eastern European populations, and Niederstotzingen South (3B and 3C), who most resemble modern-day Mediterraneans, albeit with recent common ancestry to other Europeans. Niederstotzingen North is composed of those buried with identifiable artifacts: Lombards (individual 6), Franks (individual 9), and Byzantines (individuals 3A and 12B), all of whom have strontium and oxygen isotope signals that support local provenance (fig. S2) (8). Just two individuals, 3B (Niederstotzingen South) and 10 (no sufficient autosomal data, with R1 Y-haplogroup), have nonlocal strontium isotope signals. The δ18O values suggest that individuals 10 and 3B may have originated from a higher-altitude region, possibly the Swiss-German Alpine foothills (8). Combined with the genome affinity of individual 3B to southern Europeans, these data provide direct evidence for incoming mobility at the site and for contact that went beyond exchange of grave goods (4). Familia had holdings across the Merovingian Kingdom and traveled long distances to maintain them; these holdings could have extended from northern Italy to the North Sea. Nobles displayed and accrued power by recruiting outside individuals into the household as part of their traveling retinue. Extravagant burial rites of these familia are symbolic evidence of the Frankish power systems based on people Personenverbandstaaten imposed from the 5th until the 8th century CE (4). The assignment of grave goods and the burial pattern do not follow any apparent pattern with respect to genetic origin or provenance, suggesting that relatedness and fellowship were held in equal regard at this burial.


Both kinship estimates show first-degree relatedness for pairs 1/3A, 1/6, 1/9, 3A/9, and 9/12B and second-degree relatedness for 1/12B, 3A/6, 3A/12B, and 6/9. Except for 12C, all of the Niederstotzingen North individuals are detectably and closely related. The Niederstotzingen South individuals are not detectably related to each other or any other members of the cohort. (…)

We demonstrated that five of the individuals (1, 3A, 6, 9, and 12B) were kin to at least second degree (Fig. 3 and tables S15 and S16); four of these were buried with distinguishable grave goods (discussed above and in fig. S1). These data show that at Niederstotzingen, at least in death, diverse cultural affiliations could be appropriated even within the same family across just two generations. This finding is somewhat similar to the burial of the Frankish King Childeric in the 5th century CE with a combination of Frankish and Byzantine grave goods that symbolized both his provenance and military service to the Romans (4). The burial of three unrelated individuals (3B, 3C, and 12C) in multiple graves beside the rest of the cohort would imply that this Alemannic group buried their dead based on a combination of familial ties and fellowship. One explanation could be that they were adopted as children from another region to be trained as warriors, which was a common practice at the time; these children were raised with equal regard in the familia (2, 4).

Reconstruction of first- and second-degree relatedness among all related individuals. Bold black lines and blue lines indicate first- and second-degree relatedness, respectively. Dark blue squares are identified males with age-at-death estimates years old (y.o.), mtDNA haplotypes, and NRY haplogroups. Red circles represent unidentified females that passed maternal haplotypes to their offspring. The light square represents one male infant that shares its maternal haplotype with individuals 12B and 9. N.D., not determined.


The 7th century CE burial in Niederstotzingen represents the best-preserved example of an Alemannic Adelsgrablege. The observation that burial of the remains was close to a Roman crossroads, orientated in a considered way, and associated with rich grave goods points to a noble gravesite of an Alemannic familia with external cultural influences. The high percentage of males in the burial site suggests that this site was intended for a ranked warrior group, meaning that the individuals are not representative of the population existing in 7th century CE Alemannia. The kinship estimates show that kinship structure was organized around the familia, which is defined by close association of related and unrelated individuals united for a common purpose. The apparent kinship structure is consistent with the hypothesized Personenverbandstaaten, which was a system by which Merovingian nobles enforced rule in the Duchies of Alemannia, Thuringia, Burgundy, and elsewhere. Beyond the origin of the grave goods, we show isotopic and genetic evidence for contact with communities external to the region and evidence for shared ancestry between northern and southern Europeans. This finding invites debate on the Alemannic power system that may have been highly influenced by mobility and personal relations.

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Marija Gimbutas and the expansion of the “Kurgan people” based on tumulus-building cultures


An interesting article that I keep stumbling upon, The tumulus in European prehistory: covering the body, housing the soul, by Anthony Harding (2011):

Finally, in Kurgan IV she saw “continuous waves of expansion or raids[that] touched all of northern Europe, the Aegean area, and the east Mediterranean areas possibly as far south as Egypt”. This was the period of the Catacomb Graves, but also the Early Bronze Age rock-cut tombs of the Mediterranean, Vučedol, Bell Beakers in Hungary, the Single Grave culture of the Nordic region. The Kurgan Culture reached Ireland, she remarked in a paper of 1978 “as early as 3500 B.C.” – by which she presumably referred to megalithic mounds covering passage tombs.


According to Gimbutas, the “Kurgan people” are evidenced by single graves in deep shafts, often in wooden chests (coffins) or stone cists marked by low earth or stone barrows; the dead lay on their backs with legs contracted; they were buried with flint points or arrowheads, figurines depicting horses’ heads, boars tusk ornaments and animal tooth pendants. Human sacrifice was allegedly performed during the funeral ceremonies,and sometimes ritual graves of cattle and other animals were added. This is said to contrast with what Gimbutas called the culture of Old Europe (i.e. the earlier Neolithic of the Balkans), who “betray a concern for the deification of the dead and the construction of monumental works of architecture visible in mortuary houses,grave markings, tumuli, stone rings or stone stelae, and in the large quantity of weapons found in the graves”.


The varying burial traditions of the Early Bronze Age in Central and Eastern Europe (Häusler 1977, fig. 1). Circles: tumuli with the “mound edge principle”. Semicircles: tumuli. Stippling: cremation; other symbols represent inhumation graves, divided according to orientation and sex

Can we really associate the practice of mound-building with a specific people, and assume that the spread of the practice indicates the spread of the people? That is one of the “big questions” of European archaeology, and one which a number of papers in the volume address. My own position is that the practice of tumulus building seems so widespread in time and space that it seems hard to associate it with one particular ethnic group – though I can understand how, in the melting pot that was Early Europe, people could believe this to be the case. There are, however, major arguments against the idea, on archaeological grounds alone – which Häusler’s map indicates very clearly. Burial mode and grave form in Copper and Bronze Age Europe was far too variable for any such simplistic correlation. In any case, what are we to make of the appearance of tumuli in such far-flung places as Japan or North America, where tumuli are very common? It was always unlikely that the megalithic tombs of western Europe were to be associated with movements from the steppe 1000 or 2000 years earlier, and nothing that has happened since Gimbutas was writing has changed that situation

Research has corrected Gimbutas’ opinion on the time of spread of Indo-Europeans, on the role of the horse (see e.g. Anthony 2007) in their expansion, and the unrelatedness of the two main central European Chalcolithic archaeological packages: the Corded Ware package that expanded from the Balkans into north-eastern Europe, and the Yamna package (together with the proto-Beaker package) that evolved into the East Bell Beaker culture.

Extent of migration of the “Yamna package“, from Heyd 2007

However, the shadow of the “Kurgan people” remains in the outdated body of innumerable writings. It was revived with the first attempts at disentangling Europe’s genetic past (based on the role of R1a in expanding Proto-Indo-European).

Particularly strong in that sense is the model set forth by Kristiansen, who was nevertheless aware since his first proposal of the differences between the ‘Kurgan people’ of the steppe and those of the Corded Ware culture, selecting thus an alternative framework of long-lasting human and economic interactions between the “Kurgan people”, the Globular Amphora and Baden cultures with an origin of the culture in the natural region formed between the Upper Dnieper and Vistula rivers.

This idea is continued today, and has been recently linked with the Agricultural Substrate Hypothesis. Originally proposed by Kroonen and linked to the spread of Middle Eastern “R1b1b2” with agriculture, it is now (in Kristiansen et al. 2017 and more recently in Iversen and Kroonen 2017) linked with the expansion of the Corded Ware culture, thus proposing that Pre-Germanic is a branch separated some 6,000 years ago from other branches…

Kristiansen’s (1989) schematic presentation of basic principles of burial positions in the Late Neolithic / EBA cultures in northern Eurasia, following to some extent Häusler (1983)

The linguistic proposal is obviously compatible with mainstream archaeological models – which suggest the introduction of Pre-Germanic in Scandinavia with Bell Beaker peoples -, but since the linguistic proposal alone would probably not make such a fuss without the accompanying genetics, I guess this is the right way to publicise it. I doubt linguists really care about genetics, and I really doubt amateur geneticists will read the linguistic proposal, but who cares.

Kristiansen’s traditional model is obviously in contrast with contemporaneous anthropological writings by Anthony, Heyd, or (Gimbutas’ pupil) Mallory, but is nevertheless becoming a resilient tradition in the interpretation of results in studies of human ancestry in Europe.

I doubt that Gimbutas, who was not very fond of tradition, would be proud of this kind of legacy, though…

Featured image: “European dialect” expansion of Proto-Indo-European according to The Indo-Europeans: Archeological Problems, Gimbutas (1963). Observe the similarities of the western European expansion to the recently proposed expansion of R1b lineages with western Yamna and Bell Beaker.