The Longobards: Genetic Study Sheds Light on Mysterious Barbarians Who Ruled Italy after Fall of Rome

Stock image of barbarian warriors. iStock

A genetic study has revealed fascinating new insights into the social organization and migrations of the mysterious Longobards—a barbarian people who invaded and ruled over large parts of Italy for more than 200 years after the fall of Rome.

Western Europe experienced major social, cultural and economic changes between the third and tenth centuries—a period marked by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the migrations and invasions of barbarian groups throughout the continent. However, knowledge of this key historical era is limited in many respects.

"There are many so-called "Barbarian people" described in historical texts that are supposed to have invaded Europe as the Roman Empire declined between the 4-6th centuries, with names such as Franks, Goths, Angles, Saxons and the Vandals," author of the Nature Communications study, Krishna Veeramah from Stony Brook University, told Newsweek.

"However, as barbarians themselves did not leave any written records, their origins and their way of life are somewhat mysterious. Until it fell, these groups mostly lived north of the Roman Empire, beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers—what was once called "Germania". The only written texts from the actual time of the events in question come from the Romans who were experiencing this invasion, offering a very biased, and particularly violent, point of view."

As a result, almost all aspects of these migrations are debated amongst scholars. To try and address this uncertainty in the historical knowledge, an international team of researchers decided to use genetic data to see if they could shed light on one of the most intriguing barbarian groups.

The Longobards—also known as the Lombards or "longbeards"—were a polyethnic confederation of barbarians that created a kingdom in the area of modern Austria and western Hungary in the sixth century, according to Veeramah. From there, they conquered most of Italy in the later sixth century led by their ruler King Albion.

Veeramah and colleagues used advanced DNA techniques to sequence all the genomes of 63 individuals from two ancient cemeteries in Szólád, Hungary, and Collegno, Italy, that were previously associated with the Longobards.

This allowed them to examine the genetic data in the context of archaeological material at these sites to get a sense of the social organization of these communities in a way that hasn't been done before. Each cemetery was found to be organized around one large family, with at least two groups of differing ancestry and funeral customs identified at each location.

The team's findings demonstrate that the people in these cemeteries were very genetically diverse, with some looking like modern northern or central Europeans, and some looking like modern southern Europeans. This range of diversity was surprising, even for a modern European village, according to Veeramah.

"Even more interestingly, in both cemeteries, individuals with this more northern genetic ancestry tended to have lots of grave goods—weapons, jewelry, etc.—and be buried in a very elaborate way, while those with a more southern ancestry tended to not possess such artifacts," he said.

"The northern-looking individuals also seemed to have much better diets in general—lots of meat for example," he said. "This suggests that while these individuals were all part of the same overall community—because they were buried together—there was a social structure that was shown in how they were buried and that reflected different genetic backgrounds."

Finally, the team were able to reconstruct complete genealogies of the people in these ancient cemeteries, Veeramah said. "Intriguingly, we found families of mostly males buried together spanning across three generations, but only involving individuals with the northern European genetic ancestry and rich grave goods."

"Females did not show such close relationships, and showed evidence of being born elsewhere," he said. "We would not have expected to see this kind of northern genetic ancestry in Italy. This leads us to think that we are witnessing the migration of barbarians—in this case the so called 'Lombard migration'—described in the historical texts, and that groups of closely related males were an important part of this migration process. Women may have been acquired along the way or brought in from elsewhere once the group had settled."

Barbarians certainly contributed to a major change in the socioeconomic and cultural landscape of the continent and would provide a foundation for modern European society, according to Veeramah.

"However, there is a major debate amongst historians and archaeologists of the extent to which barbarians invaded the continent en masse, versus a more modest change involving only the ruling elite of early Medieval towns and villages, with the majority of the people who were present during the time of empire essentially remaining in place," he said.

"While we knew that Barbarians entered the Roman Empire once it fell, we really had no idea about how they did this and in what kind of numbers," he said. "Our work, by combining genomic data from everyone in an ancient cemetery and comparing this to the archaeological data and textual information, provides the first glimpse of this process, suggesting biological kinship amongst groups of men was a key part of the process, at least for the Longobards."

The next step, according to the researchers, is to look at other cemeteries from this period that are associated both with the Lombards and other barbarian groups, to see how widespread such phenomena were and to build up a better picture of life at the time.