Ancient genomes from the Balkans show how Slavic Europe was formed

A study led by the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE-CSIC-Pompeu Fabra University) and Harvard University (USA) has reconstructed the genome history of the first millennium for the first time Balkan Peninsula.

To do this, the team, which also included researchers from the universities of the Basque Country, La Rioja and Western Ontario (USA), recovered and analyzed the ancient genomes of 146 people living in what is now Croatia and Serbia during that period. The work, published in the journal cellreveals the Balkans as global and cosmopolitan frontier of the Roman Empire and reconstructs the arrival of the Slavic peoples in this region.

For the first time, the team has identified three people of African descent who lived in the Balkans under imperial rule of Rome. On the other hand, research confirms that the Migration of Slavic peoples From the 6th century onwards, it represented one of the largest lasting demographic changes in all of Europe, whose cultural influence continues to this day.

Crossroads of communication and cultural melting pot

First the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire incorporated the Balkans, transforming this border region into a hub of communication and communications culture crucible. This is confirmed by the study, which shows that economic vitality attracted the empire Immigrants from far away places to this area.

These populations coming from the East were fully integrated into local Balkan society.

Íñigo Olalde (University of the Basque Country)

By analyzing ancient DNA, the team was able to determine that there was a large demographic contribution from the Anatolian Peninsula (in modern-day Turkey) during Roman rule over the region, leaving genetic traces in Balkan populations.

However, there is no trace of Italic ancestry in the analyzed genomes. “These populations coming from the East were fully integrated into the local society of the Balkans. In Viminacium“, one of the Roman capitals in what is now Serbia, we found an exceptionally rich sarcophagus in which a man of local descent and a woman of Anatolian descent were buried,” he comments. Inigo OlaldeIkerbasque researcher at the University of the Basque Country and previously “La Caixa Junior Leader” researcher in the IBE paleogenomics group.

The team also uncovered the sporadic long-distance mobility of three people of African descent to the Balkan Peninsula during their imperial rule. One of them was a teenager whose genetic origins lie in the region of modern-day Sudan, outside the borders of the former empire. “According to the isotope analysis of his tooth roots, he had a more sea-based diet in his childhood than the other people studied,” he comments. Carles Lalueza FoxPrincipal researcher at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Director of the Natural Sciences Museum of Barcelona.

In addition, he was buried with an oil lamp depicting eagle iconography related to Jupiter, one of the most important gods of the Romans. “The archaeological analysis of his burial shows that he could have been part of the Roman forces, so we would be talking about an immigrant who traveled from very far away to the Balkans in the 2nd century AD,” says Lalueza-Fox. “This shows us a Roman Empire diverse and cosmopolitanthat welcomed populations far beyond the European continent.”

barbaric populations

The study has identified some individuals of northern European and steppe descent who lived in the Balkan Peninsula in the 3rd century, at the height of Roman occupation. An anthropological analysis of their skulls revealed that some of them were artificially deformed, a typical custom of some steppe peoples and the Huns, often referred to as “barbarians.”

The results show the presence of people who came from outside the borders of the Roman Empire, across the Danube, long before the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

These results support historical and archaeological research and demonstrate the presence of people from outside the empire’s borders, across the Danube, long before the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

“The borders of the empire were much more diffuse than the borders of today’s nation-states. He Danube “It served as a geographical border of the empire, but also functioned as a means of communication and was very permeable to the movement of people,” says Pablo Carrión, IBE researcher and co-first author of the study.

One of the biggest demographic changes

Behind Fall of the Western Roman EmpireIn particular, starting in the 6th century, the study shows the large-scale arrival in the Balkans of individuals genetically similar to the modern Slavic-speaking populations of Eastern Europe. Their genetic footprint accounts for between 30% and 60% of the ancestry of today’s Balkan peoples and represents one of the largest lasting demographic changes across Europe during the migration period.

Although the study notes the sporadic arrival of people from Eastern Europe in earlier periods, a strong wave of migration can be observed from the 6th century onwards. “According to our ancient DNA analyses, this arrival of Slavic-speaking populations in the Balkans occurred over several generations and included entire family groups, including men and women,” Carrión explains.

Their genetic heritage is visible not only in today’s Slavic-speaking Balkan populations, but also in other groups that include regions where no Slavic languages ​​are currently spoken, such as Romania and Greece.

David Reich (Harvard University)

The study also shows that the establishment of Slavic populations in the Balkans was stronger in the north, with a genetic contribution between 50% and 60% in present-day Serbia, and gradually became smaller in the south, with between 30% and 40%. genetic representation on mainland Greece and up to 20% on the Aegean islands.

“Their genetic heritage is visible not only in today’s Slavic-speaking Balkan populations, but also in other groups that include regions where Slavic languages ​​are not currently spoken, such as Romania and Greece,” he points out. David Reicha researcher at Harvard University whose laboratory carried out the extraction and sequencing of ancient DNA.

The war in Yugoslavia in 1991 led to the division of the Balkan peoples into the various countries that now make up the region, and its consequences continue to this day. However, researchers from across the region contributed to the work.

“They worked together in the study Croatian and Serbian researchers. This is a great example of cooperation considering the recent history of the Balkan Peninsula. At the same time, this type of work is an example of how objective genomic data can help move beyond social and political problems linked to collective identities based on epic narratives of the past,” says Lalueza-Fox.

Genetic database

The team created a genetic database of the Serbian population de novo, in order to be able to reconstruct the history of the Balkans. “We were faced with the situation that there was no genome database of the current Serbian population. To build them and use them as a comparative reference in this study, we had to look for people who called themselves Serbs because of certain common cultural characteristics, even if they lived in other countries like Montenegro or North Macedonia,” he says. Miodrag GrbicProfessor at the University of Western Ontario and visiting professor at the University of La Rioja.

The analyzed genomes of Croats and Serbs indicate a heritage shared equally by Slavic and Mediterranean populations

Despite the question of identity marked by the recent history of the Balkans, the analyzed genomes of Croats and Serbs point to a heritage shared equally by Slavic and Mediterranean populations.

“We believe that the analysis of ancient DNA, together with archaeological data and historical records, can help reconstruct the history of the Balkan peoples and the emergence of the so-called Slavic peoples of southern Europe,” says Lalueza-Fox.

According to Grbic, “The image that emerges is not one of division, but of division.” shared history. Iron Age people in the Balkan region were similarly affected by migrations during the Roman Empire period and later by Slavic migrations. Taken together, these influences led to the genetic profile of the modern Balkans, regardless of national borders.


Olalde Carrion et al. “A genetic history of the Balkans from the Roman frontier to Slavic migration.” cell (2023).

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