Medieval mystical knights avoided consanguineous marriage by special traditions

Medieval mystical knights avoided consanguineous marriage by special traditions

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From the steppes of Mongolia, warrior knights called the Avars, known as the “Mystic Knight,” poured into the grassy plains along the Danube River in present-day Hungary in 568. They, along with other Central Asian groups, formed a new center of power in Europe . Although they are known from historical sources, they did not leave any written history.

Only now have researchers from Hungary, Germany, Austria and elsewhere been able to fill in some of the gaps by reconstructing the Avars' genealogy. This is done using DNA taken from hundreds of burials, including entire Avar burials.

The new study has been published in the prestigious journal natureAnd there's good reason for that, according to Lotte Hediger, a Danish archaeology professor at the University of Oslo.

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The longest DNA-based family tree in the world

This study is the largest example of the new trend in ancient DNA research, where one studies not just isolated individuals, but entire communities and families. The study also includes the longest DNA-based family tree published to date, spanning nine generations.

– He's very convincing. This is very important for us as archaeologists, Heidegger says.

– It opens a whole new dimension in our understanding of prehistory. It is interesting to see that genetic findings could explain some additional dimensions in the archaeological understanding of the history of these people who came from Central Asia.

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400 skeletons from tombs

The researchers, a group of geneticists, archaeologists and historians, sequenced the DNA of more than 400 skeletons from four burial sites in Hungary located 200 kilometers apart.

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Carbon 14 dating shows that the burials extend back to 250 years of Avars rule in the region. Researchers have been looking for clues that could help them understand how these people lived together.

In this way, it became possible to reconstruct the entire family tree. This included a nine-generation tree that extended from a man buried a generation or two after the Avars first arrived to a descendant buried 250 years later.

In this way, researchers discovered how the Avars organized their society. This is something that researchers would not have seen from existing written sources, but it also confirms what archeology alone has indicated.

“It's unique because it gives us insight on the individual level, and it's incredibly exciting,” says Heidegger.

– Now researchers are filling in the gaps in our knowledge.

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The men stayed where they were

The study shows that all of the men are descended from a small number of adult men who were buried with rich grave goods and are believed to be the founders of society. But all adult women are outsiders and do not have family or relatives in the same burial place.

A man was buried next to a horse in a cemetery in Hungary.  Photo: Institute of Archaeological Sciences, Eötvös Lorand University Museum

A man was buried next to a horse in a cemetery in Hungary. Photo: Institute of Archaeological Sciences, Eötvös Lorand University Museum

This pattern is consistent with a practice ethnographers call patriarchy: men stay behind, while women leave their place of birth to marry into other families, building alliances and strengthening social ties within the family.

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– And this is what they adhere to strictly throughout this period, says Heidegger.

DNA has also revealed polygamy, where men can have children with multiple women, but also women can have children with several different men, perhaps through widow remarriage to a relative of the deceased man.

This pattern was invisible in archaeology, Heidegger points out.

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– But thanks to genetic data, it has now been revealed.

Strict patriarchy appears to have helped the Avars avoid endogamy. After analyzing the DNA of hundreds of people, researchers found no examples of children born to their close relatives.

Thus it appears that the Avars had complete control over kinship and kinship for many generations.

Dalila Awolowo

Dalila Awolowo

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