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Rise and Fall of Roman Empire Shifted Balkan Populations, DNA Analysis Shows

Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire
The Temple of Saturn from ancient Rome. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire shifted the population in the Balkans. Credit: Marcok / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

A recent study, published on December 7th in the journal Cell, examined the DNA of people living in the Balkan region between 1 and 1000 CE. Experts concluded that there is no sign of Italian ancestry from the Iron Age, even though the Roman Empire was influential there.

The study found that instead of Italian roots, Balkan populations had their genes shaped by various migrations. These migrations were from Western Anatolia, central and northern Europe, and the Pontic-Kazakh Steppe.

Beginning in the seventh century CE, when the Western Roman Empire fell, many folks moved from Eastern Europe to the Balkans. This was probably because Slavic-speaking groups were showing up. According to a new study, today, about thirty to sixty percent of the ancestry of Balkan peoples is Slavic.

Carles Lalueza-Fox, a senior researcher and paleogenomicist from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE: CSIC-Universitat Pompeu Fabra) and Museu de Ciències Naturals de Barcelona, said that the evidence of Slavic migration is widespread throughout the Balkans. This discovery could carry significant social and political implications, considering the Balkans’ history of identity conflict.

Rise and fall of the Roman Empire and DNA analysis of ancient individuals in the Balkans

To understand the population history in the Balkans and how the rise and fall of the Roman Empire influenced them, scientists collected DNA from 136 ancient individuals.

These individuals were found in twenty different places across the Balkans, which includes areas near the Adriatic, Central Mediterranean, and Aegean Seas. This also consists of the Middle and Lower Danube and Sava Rivers. The sites varied from large Roman cities and military strongholds to small rural towns.

The researchers focused on three specific time periods. Among these was the peak of the Roman Empire when it was also expanding (1-250 CE), the later Imperial period (around 250-550 CE), and the collapse of the Western Empire (550-1000 CE).

To better understand genetic findings, the researchers teamed up with local archaeologists and historians. They examined cultural and historical details by documenting burial practices and noting any items buried with the individuals. These would be such things as coins, jewelry, pottery, tools, and weapons.

Additionally, the team utilized radiocarbon dating to confirm the age of thirty-eight of the ancient individuals. This method also provided isotopic data, offering insights into their diets, as reported by ScienceDaily.

No evidence of Italian Iron Age ancestry in Balkan populations

The researchers were surprised to discover that people in the Balkans during the Roman Empire’s peak didn’t have any traces of Italian Iron Age ancestry.

Instead, they found that people from Western Anatolia, which was also part of the Roman Empire, moved into the region during that time. The study also revealed migrations of individuals to the Balkans from both inside and outside the Roman Empire.

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