A new palaeogenetic study traces human migrations during the Roman Empire

An international research team coordinated by Stanford University together with Sapienza University and the University of Vienna analysed thousands of ancient genomes, including 204 previously unpublished ones, from skeletal remains found in Europe, Asia and Africa, confirming the genetic diversity of the populations that inhabited these areas

An international research team coordinated by Stanford University together with Sapienza University and the University of Vienna used genetic material extracted from ancient skeletons to reconstruct a detailed picture of migration and long-distance travel during the heyday of the Empire.

The study, published in the journal eLife, analysed the DNA of thousands of ancient humans, including 204 who had not previously been sequenced, showing how different the areas of the Roman Empire were: at least 8% of the individuals included in the study did not originate from the area of Europe, Africa or Asia where they were buried. It was also discovered that there were common patterns of genetic ancestry among those individuals who did not originate from the area where they were buried, and this helped to better explain how trade routes and the movements of the legions fuelled diversity.

In the past, reference would be made to historical and archaeological data to try to reconstruct population interactions and changes during this, but it is now possible to add new details from a genetic perspective.

The same group of researchers had previously used ancient DNA to study the genetic diversity of the inhabitants of Rome and its surroundings during a 12,000-year period from Prehistory to the Middle Ages, demonstrating how there had been a rapid diversification of the population in the Mediterranean area since the foundation of Rome.

Today, focusing on the Imperial Roman period, an attempt is made to understand how much of this diversity was exclusively attributable to the Empire, and how different the more remote areas might have been. The study focuses on a narrower time span, from the end of the Bronze Age, 3,000 years ago, to the present day, taking into consideration a geographical area covering the maximum expansion of the Roman Empire.

Despite the high rate at which people moved during this period, there was no homogenisation of populations and even today it is still possible to trace the genome of an individual back to its geographical group with a good approximation. This impact of migration, which was less than expected, can probably be traced back to the reduction in mobility following the fall of the Empire and the possibility of a more complex integration of individuals moving into the social, and therefore genetic, fabric of local populations.



Stable population structure in Europe since the Iron Age, despite high mobility - Margaret L Antonio, Clemens L Weiß, Ziyue Gao et al. - Elife. 2024 doi: 10.7554/eLife.79714


Further Information

Alessia Nava
Department of Oral and Maxillo-Facial Sciences

Alfredo Coppa
Department of Environmental Biology

Dušan Borić
Department of Environmental Biology

Michaela Lucci
Department of Environmental Biology

Sunday, 18 February 2024

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