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Study sheds light on the mystery of the Avar elite origins

In the AD 560s, the Avars established an empire centred on the Carpathian Basin that lasted more than 200 years.

They are primarily known from Byzantine historical sources, who documented and questioned the sudden appearance of Avars in Europe. Modern historians have wondered whether they were a well-organised migrant group or a mixed band of fugitives.

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Archaeological research has pointed to many parallels between the Carpathian Basin and Eurasian nomadic artefacts (weapons, vessels, horse harnesses), 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 have so far not been able to trace their origin in the wide Eurasian steppes.

In this study, a multidisciplinary team – including researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, the ELTE University and the Institute of Archaeogenomics of Budapest, Harvard Medical School in Boston, the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton – analysed 66 individuals from the Carpathian Basin.

The study included the eight richest Avar graves ever discovered, overflowing with golden objects, as well as 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.

Fastest long-distance migration in human history

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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 down the timing of the proposed Avar migration. They covered more than 5000 kilometres 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 this 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 to 30 percent 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 AD.

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Header Image Credit : Ilona C. Kiss

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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