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DNA analysis helps retrace early European settlers of Iberian peninsula

By Antonio Martin

Alicante, Spain, Jan 18 (efe-epa).- The oft-forgotten presence of Egyptians, Vandals, Visigoths and Byzantines in the southeast of the Iberian Peninsula between the 5th and 9th centuries is the subject of an ambitious international archeological project financed by the European Commission that, with the help of DNA, hopes to retrace the history of settlements in Europe.

Along with several centers in different Spanish cities (Jaén, Mallorca and Pamplona), the Provincial Archaeological Museum of Alicante (MARQ), in eastern Spain has been chosen to participate in the study being led by the influential Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, financed by Brussels with more than 10 million euros.

MARQ archaeologist Teresa Ximénez de Embún, who participated in the project with the director of this museum, Manuel Olcina, told Efe that she has sent to Germany the bone remains of 80 individuals from eight gravesites in the province of Alicante from the period AD 400-900 to contribute to the genetic study of ancient European populations, in a project that combines archaeology with bio-archaeometry.

“This study will break many prejudices or clichés that existed until now, such as the overvalued importance that has often been given to the Visigothic population, and could increase the role of the Byzantines (from present-day Turkey between the 6th and 7th centuries) in this area, of which we know almost nothing and which are often confused with the Visigoths,” Ximénez de Embún said.

Remains of a type of bone located behind the ear, the ‘pars petrosa’, and molar teeth — where the ancient DNA is best preserved — discovered at sites like the late Roman (4th and 5th century) Queen’s Baths in Calpe and the Albir de l’Alfas in Pi have been sent to laboratories in Germany.

Findings from a range of gravesites from the early medieval Byzantine and Visigoth eras, as well as the Islamic era, from across the Alicante region have also been submitted for analysis.

The Alicante museum participation in the study will shed new light on the arrival of invaders and colonizers to the southeast of the peninsula from the end of the Roman Empire until the Islamic invasion, a period that is to some extent obscure due to the scarce historical documentation.

DNA analysis of the remains will yield information on the gender of the buried, how closely related they were, and provide their genetic profile, which will reveal the identification of individuals who migrated or had a different ancestry.

At the Max Planck Institute in Jena, genetic profiles from Alicante will be compared with those of other archaeological teams from northern and central Europe, as well as from other parts of the Mediterranean.

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