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How Did These Hostage Children End Up Buried With Elite Germanic Warriors?

Analysis of remains in a high status grave shows that not all of the deceased were directly related, raising questions about why they were buried together

Genetic analysis of these excavated remains showed that unclear family linkages because some of the young warriors had widespread origins. (Landesamt für Denkmalpflege im RP Stuttgart)
smithsonian.com

In 1962, the bodies of 13 people—10 adults and three infants—were discovered in a 7th century burial site in Niederstotzingen, Germany. It was clear that the individuals were high status, and that at least some of the adults were warriors because their graves were stuffed with weapons, armor, jewelry and equestrian gear. But many details about these individuals—where they came from, how they were related, even their genders—remained unclear.

Now, as Laura Geggel reports for Live Science, a new genetic study is revealing some of the mysteries that surround the Niederstotzingen dead. Intriguingly, not all of the individuals were related, suggesting that some of them had been—perhaps forcefully—adopted into the family.

The Niederstotzingen bodies belonged to the Alemanni, a confederacy of ancient Germanic tribes that were sprinkled across modern-day Germany, France, Switzerland and Austria. The Alemanni clashed periodically with the Roman Empire, but were ultimately brought down by the Franks, another Germanic group, in 497 A.D. To reflect integration with the Franks, the Alemanni started to inter their dead in elaborate graves known as Adelsgrablege.

The cemetery at Niederstotzingen is the best-preserved example of an Adelsgrablege burial, and it consists of both individual and joint graves. A team of researchers analyzed DNA from the bones of the people who were laid to rest there and studied isotopes from their teeth.

Their findings, published in the journal Science Advances, revealed that 11 out of the 13 bodies were male; the gender of the other two proved inconclusive, but the number of men seems to confirm this was in fact a burial site for high-ranking warriors. Six of the individuals appeared to be from northern and eastern European populations, and five of these individuals were directly related to one another. Seven bodies, reports Michael Price of Science, were completely unrelated. Two seemed to come from southern Europe, possibly the Mediterranean.

The eclectic nature of the burials suggests that among the Alemanni, kinship groups could be comprised of both related and unrelated individuals who “united for a common purpose,” the study authors write. But what was that purpose?

Study author Niall O’Sullivan, who completed his doctorate at Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Italy, and carried out some of the analyses at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, tells Price that some of the individuals may have been taken hostage as children, incorporated into the family and raised as warriors.

“Folklore from the time has tales of tribes exchanging hostage children that are raised as their own,” he says.

Of course, it is difficult to make any conclusive determinations about Alemanni kinship practices based on a single gravesite, Alexander Mörseburg, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, tells Price. The people buried at Niederstotzingen were elite fighters, and their behavior might not be reflective of the group as a whole.

It is interesting to note, though, that in addition to containing people of diverse origins, the Niederstotzingen burial site was filled with diverse grave goods: some were Frankish, some were Byzantine, and some were Lombard. This seems to suggest that the Alemanni were receptive to different cultures—perhaps to the point that they welcomed foreigners into their homes.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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