(CN) – Interpreting DNA from the bones of 13th-century Crusaders has given researchers insight into the remarkable story of their genetic diversity and highlights the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to fill in the gaps of historical events.
Researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute were able to conduct genetic analysis on the remains of nine individuals who were found in burial pits in Lebanon, according to a study released Thursday in The American Journal of Human Genetics.
The nine men were part of a larger group of at least 25 individuals found in “Crusaders’ pits” near Sidon, Lebanon. Archeological evidence, including a Crusader coin and buckles associated with medieval Europe along with DNA evidence, supports the notion they were Crusaders killed in battle in the 1200s.
Crusaders from various European countries invaded the Near East between 1095 and 1291 to fight religious wars. This new research states these warriors were from “genetically and geographically diverse groups.”
“Our findings give us an unprecedented view of the ancestry of the people who fought in the Crusader army. And it wasn’t just Europeans,” said lead author Marc Haber of the Wellcome Sanger Institute. “We see this exceptional genetic diversity in the Near East during medieval times, with Europeans, Near Easterners, and mixed individuals fighting in the Crusades and living and dying side by side.”
Out of the nine individuals studied, three appeared to be from various European countries, four were from the Near East and two had mixed genetic ancestry.
Other incidences of massive migration throughout history, such as Genghis Khan leading Mongols through Asia, have fundamentally reshaped the genetic makeup of those areas, but unlike the Genghis Khan story, the Crusaders’ genetic influence was short-lived.
Although the study suggests the Crusaders intermixed with local inhabitants, they were not a permanent part of the Lebanese population.
“They made big efforts to expel them, and succeeded after a couple of hundred years,” said Chris Tyler-Smith, a genetics researcher at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.
This research shows that looking at ancient DNA has the potential to uncover other major events in human history that might not have been as well-documented as the Crusades.
“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. 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,” Haber said.
The researchers said the results of this study underscore the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to historical research.
“Our study is an example on how interdisciplinary work can enrich human knowledge: The archeologists excavated the mass burial and the artifacts they found plus the radiocarbon dating gave the burial a timeframe. Based on the historical record for this time period it was associated with the Crusaders activity. Genetics confirmed this, and added more layers to the story,” Haber said. These layers include the knowledge that local citizens and mixed individuals fought with the European Crusaders.