Ancient DNA of Crusaders Reveals Warriors Were Also Lovers

Sidon, Lebanon, Crusader grave
Bones of the Crusaders were found in a burial pit in Sidon, Lebanon. Between the years 1095 and 1291 A.D., Christian invaders fought a series of religious wars against Muslim armies in the Near East—primarily to secure control of important holy sites—in what we refer to today as the Crusades. Claude Doumet-Serhal

Between the years 1095 and 1291 A.D., Christian invaders fought a series of religious wars against Muslim armies in the Near East—primarily to secure control of important holy sites—in what we refer to today as the Crusades.

Now, a DNA study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics has cast new light on this tumultuous era and the interactions that the Crusaders—who numbered in the hundreds of thousands—had with local populations.

According to researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the paper demonstrates that genetically diverse Crusader armies intermixed with people living in the Near East, had families, and recruited them to their cause. But despite this intermixing, their genetic impact did not last in the long-term.

First author of the study Marc Haber said the findings give an "unprecedented view" of the ancestry of the people who fought in the Crusader army.

"It was surprising to learn how diverse genetically the Near East was during the Crusaders' time: We see Europeans, Near Easterners and their mixed descendants living—and dying—side by side," Haber told Newsweek.

For the study, the scientists analyzed ancient DNA extracted from 13 individuals who lived in Lebanon during either the Roman period—around 2,000 years ago—or the medieval period, when the Crusades took place.

Nine of the samples—those from the medieval period—came from skeletons found in a recently excavated burial pit near a Crusader castle in Sidon, Lebanon, which have been dated to the 13th century. The remains were among those of 25 individuals in the pit, all of whom were males who had been killed violently in battle—as evidenced by blunt force injuries to their bones—before being buried and then burned.

"One consisted of a detached head, possibly used as a projectile," to stoke fear or spread disease, Haber said.

Items found in the pit alongside the skeletons, such as European shoe buckles and coins, led experts to conclude that the remains belonged to a group of Crusader soldiers—a suggestion that has been strengthened by the new DNA analysis.

Of the nine Crusader remains they sampled, the team found that three individuals were Europeans of varying origin—including from Spain and Sardinia—four were Near Easterners who had likely been recruited to the cause, and two had mixed ancestry.

However, the researchers note that even though mixing between groups was common, it did not leave much lasting genetic impact: European ancestry in the Near East has now effectively disappeared—likely because significant efforts were made to expel Crusaders from the region.

"These new genome sequences are the first genetic data from the Roman and medieval periods from this region," Haber said. "We used this new data to show that there was a remarkable genetic diversity in the ancient Near East, including admixture of Europeans and Near Easterners during the Crusades, but this diversity was transient in history, since, with the exception of some Y-chromosomal lineages, the Crusaders' ancestry has been 'diluted' to undetectable levels in the modern Near Eastern populations."

Analysis of the DNA extracted from people living in Lebanon during the Roman period showed striking similarities to the modern Lebanese population, despite the fact that significant mixing had taken place.

"If you look at the genetics of people who lived during the Roman period and the genetics of people who are living there today, you would think that there was just this continuity," Haber said in a statement. "You would think that nothing happened between the Roman period and today, and you would miss that for a certain period of time the population of Lebanon included Europeans and people with mixed ancestry."

The fact that this was missed suggested that there may be other major events in human history that don't show up in the DNA of people living today—and if they are also not documented by the historical record, we may simply not know about them.

"Our results show the power of ancient DNA in revealing events in human history that might be unknown to us," Haber said.

Another notable achievement of the study was the extraction of genetic material from remains that were located in a warm region—where DNA degrades faster.

"[It was surprising] to be able to get DNA out of these samples and to sequence them," Haber said. "The warm climate of the Near East and the way these individuals were buried—thrown in a pit and burned—make the chances of recovering any DNA very slim.

This has important implications for future genetic research in this region, which has a long history of migration. Previous studies have been hampered by having to rely principally on extracting DNA from modern populations due to the difficulties of recovering ancient genetic material here.

The researchers say the study highlights the significant role that analyzing ancient DNA can play in casting light on past events that we know about simply through historical records that are often "fragmentary and potentially very biased," according to senior author Chris Tyler-Smith.

"We know that Richard the Lionheart went to fight in the Crusades, but we don't know much about the ordinary soldiers who lived and died there, and these ancient samples give us insights into that," he said in a statement.

Jonathan Phillips, an expert in the history of the Crusades from Royal Holloway, University of London, who was not involved in the latest research, said the findings worked "with the grain" of existing documentary evidence, thus providing it with another dimension.

"It's really some good hard scientific evidence underpinning what a lot of the documentary evidence has suggested—that there was intermarrying, or intermixing, between the Crusader settlers and the local eastern Christian population," Phillips told Newsweek. "It's not game-changing in the sense that knew this already—and it's quite logical that if you're in a land for 150 years, there will be some mixing—but it's a wholly different and, I suppose, harder, form of evidence.

"The study also shows the range of places that the Crusaders came from," Phillips said. "Again, we knew that already, but it's providing us with some nice evidence for it, while highlighting the attraction of the Crusades—that people across Western Europe were inclined to go to the Holy Land and fight."

Scott Redford, a professor of Islamic art and archaeology at SOAS University of London, who was also not involved in the research, echoed Phillips' thoughts, describing it as a "pioneering study" that adds a new kind of evidence to existing "historical, archaeological, art historical and other scholarly studies" of cultural interaction during the time of the Crusades.

"In this it is very important. Let's hope there are more such studies using these techniques." he told Newsweek. "A healthy slice of current art historical and archaeological research emphasizes interaction between local populations, especially the extensive Christian populations there, and these northern and western Europeans. This study adds a new dimension to these studies by showing the coexistence of Europeans and locals."

"I'm [also] heartened to find results from Lebanon, as the majority of the archaeology of this period is undertaken in Israel, and to a lesser extent, in Jordan," he said.

However, Redford pointed out that there are some limitations to the research, notably that the sample size—13 sets of remains—is too small to support generalizations of mixing elsewhere in the region during the period.

"It would have been great to have more archaeological context: Certainly all of the skeletons were identified as male, and the nature of their interment points to an association with war, but can we go as far as to state that they were all soldiers?" he said. "For one, I would like to see more archaeological evidence, including evidence from the majority of the skeletons from which it proved impossible to extract DNA."