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Revealed: Genetic secrets of high-ranked warriors at a medieval German burial site

Ancient genome-wide analyses infer kinship structure in an Early Medieval Alemannic graveyard

American Association for the Advancement of Science


IMAGE: Excavated human remains at the burial site. view more 

Credit: Landesamt für Denkmalpflege im RP Stuttgart

Researchers studying human remains of high-ranked warriors recovered from an Early Medieval Germanic cemetery have finally gleaned insight into these individuals' sex and kinship relationships. These findings offer a unique understanding of the Alemanni, a group of Germanic tribes that occupied a region spanning parts of present-day Germany, France, Switzerland and Austria. After the Alemanni were defeated by the Franks in 497 AD, the tribes' burial practices changed, with households (familia) buried in richly furnished graves known as Adelsgrablege. An example of Alemannic Adelsgrablege can be seen in the 7th century AD Alemannic burial site at Niederstotzingen in southern Germany, where, decades ago, the skeletal remains of 13 individuals, as well as collections of goods, were uncovered from 12 graves. Despite analysis on the site since its discovery in 1962, some questions remain: namely, the individuals' genetic sex, kinship and genetic origin. Using ancient genome-wide analyses techniques - including 1240K - Niall O'Sullivan and colleagues sought to reconstruct familial relationships of the Niederstotzingen individuals, as well as to estimate their genetic sex. At least 11 of the individuals were likely male, they say, suggesting that burial rites were sex-biased. What's more, in terms of origin, the site is divided into two groups, the authors say: Niederstotzingen North, comprised of six individuals genetically most like modern northern and eastern European populations, and Niederstotzingen South, two individuals most similar to modern-day Mediterraneans, but genetically unrelated. Of the Niederstotzingen North, five were second degree relatives. Finally, the strontium and oxygen isotope content of the individuals' dental enamel in the northern burials indicated that they were born locally, while the southern burials were born in other regions. These findings suggest that other social processes, such as personal fealty to powerful families, might have also influenced the composition of these cemeteries.


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