Origins of the Avars, who brought the stirrup to Europe, revealed in ancient DNA

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Reconstruction of an Avar-period armoured horseman in the Déri Museum, Debrecen, Hungary, based on Grave 1341/1503 of the Derecske-Bikás-dűlő site. Photo: © Ilona C. Kiss
Reconstruction of an Avar-period armoured horseman in the Déri Museum, Debrecen, Hungary, based on Grave 1341/1503 of the Derecske-Bikás-dűlő site. © Ilona C. Kiss

The origins of the mounted warriors known as the Avars have long been shrouded in mystery.

Now, a multidisciplinary research team has shed light on the 1400-year-old mystery of the genetic origins of the Avar elite.

In the 560s, the Avars established an empire that lasted more than 200 years, centered in the Carpathian Basin.

Despite much scholarly debate their initial homeland and origin have remained unclear. They are primarily known from historical sources of their enemies, the Byzantines, who wondered about the origin of the fearsome Avar warriors after their sudden appearance in Europe.

Had they come from the Rouran empire in the Mongolian steppe, which had just been destroyed by the Turks, or should one believe the Turks who strongly disputed such a prestigious background?

Historians have wondered whether they were a well-organised migrant group or a mixed band of fugitives.

Archaeological research has pointed to many parallels between the Carpathian Basin and Eurasian nomadic artefacts, such as weapons, containers and horse harness. It is also known that the Avars introduced the stirrup in Europe.

Despite this, researchers have been unable to trace their origin in the wide Eurasian steppes – until now.

An international team analysed DNA from 66 individuals from the Carpathian Basin. The study, the findings of which are reported in the journal Cell, included the eight richest Avar graves ever discovered, overflowing with golden objects, as well as other individuals from the region before 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?,” said study senior author Johannes Krause.

The Avars did not leave written records about their history, with the DNA findings providing robust clues about their origins.

“The historical contextualization of the archaeogenetic results allowed us to narrow down the timing of the proposed Avar migration,” explains Choongwon Jeong, co-senior author of the study.

“They covered more than 5000km in a few years from Mongolia to the Caucasus, and after 10 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.”

Lead author Guido Gnecchi-Ruscone added: “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.”

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, the researchers found 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.

The results show the potential that lies in the unprecedented collaboration between geneticists, archaeologists, historians and anthropologists for the research on the “migration period” in the first millennium CE.

The study team included 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.

This research is a part of HistoGenes, a European Research Council-funded project investigating the period of 400 to 900 CE in the Carpathian Basin from a multidisciplinary perspective.

Ancient genomes reveal origin and rapid trans-Eurasian migration of 7th century Avar elites. Guido Alberto Gnecchi-Ruscone et al. Cell, April 1, 2022, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2022.03.007

The study, published open access, can be read here

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