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Fastest migration in human history undertaken by Avars

Researcher Zuzana Hofmanová played a key role in solving the 1,400-year-old riddle of where the Avars came from. It took them only ten years to get from Mongolia to Central Europe.

A multidisciplinary research team of geneticists, archaeologists, and historians from several institutes in Europe, Asia, and North America, including Zuzana Hofmanová from the Department of Archaeology and Museology of the Faculty of Arts of Masaryk University, obtained the first human genomic data about the origins of the Avars. The research was published in the April issue of the prestigious scientific journal Cell.

The Avars were the more successful successors to Attila’s Huns and ruled a large part of Central and Eastern Europe for nearly 250 years. In the Czech Republic they are known for being the enemies of the Slavs and foes of Samo’s Empire. According to earlier research, the Avars came from somewhere in Central Asia in the sixth century AD, but both ancient authors and modern historians and archaeologists long speculated about where exactly they originated – whether they came mainly from western Eurasia or whether they were the descendants of the Mongolian Rouran Khanate, a mighty foe of China. Despite years of debate among historians and archaeologists, the exact origins of the Avars in the expansive steppes of Europe and Asia remained a mystery.

Now, with the help of DNA, a team of geneticists, archaeologists, and historians, of which Zuzana Hofmanová is a member, has solved this 1,400-year-old riddle. They have obtained the first human genomic data from the most prominent Avar sites discovered in what is today Hungary and discovered the genetic origins of the Avar elite in a far-away region in north-eastern Asia. In the study, they present direct genetic evidence of one of the farthest and fastest migrations in human history.

As part of archaeogenetic research, the scientists analysed the remains of 66 individuals from the Carpathian Basin, including from eight of the richest Avar graves ever discovered (in one of them they found, for example, 2.3 kg of gold). Many artefacts from these graves are on display at an exhibition that recently opened in Schallaburg, Austria. Archaeogenetic analysis was conducted on other individuals from the Carpathian Basin before and after the Avar period. By historically contextualizing the genetic analyses, the researchers were able to pinpoint the timing of the Avars’ migration. Over the course of several years, they travelled more than 5,000 kilometres from today’s Mongolia to the Caucuses, and within another ten years they settled in the Carpathian Basin. This was the fastest documented migration of such a long distance in human history.

“There were clear genetic links with populations from north-eastern Asia, including an individual directly from the Rouran Khanate. We also found that the Avar elites of the seventh century sometimes had up to 20 to 30 percent different genetic origins, probably associated with the north Caucasus and the western Asian steppes, which could indicate later migration from the steppes after the arrival of the Avars in the sixth century,” says Zuzana Hofmanová, an archaeogeneticist and the co-author of the study.

East Asian descent was mainly found in individuals from the assumed centre of the Avar Khanate between the Danube and Tisza Rivers in modern central Hungary. “Outside the region of primary settlement, we find great genetic variability, especially at the south Hungarian site of Kölked. This suggests that the incoming Avar group ruled a varied population with the help of a heterogenous elite. Interestingly, the Avar elite maintained their East Asian ancestry for a long time, even though they were surrounded by populations of local origin. This suggests that either people were in continual motion across the entire Eurasian steppe or that this group was relatively genetically isolated, perhaps as a result of cultural habits,” explains Hofmanová.

The research findings indicate, among other things, the great potential of cooperation between geneticists, archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists in studying the migration period in the first millennium. “This period in which many European borders as we know them today were formed will be the subject of further research. We still know much less than is generally assumed,” adds Hofmanová. The study was produced as part of the ERC-funded HistoGenes project studying the period between 400 and 900 AD in the Carpathian Basin.