The Crusaders made love and war, genetic study fi

First genetic study of ancient human remains believed to be Crusaders confirms that the warriors traveled from Western Europe to the Near East, where they mingled and had families with the local population, and died together in battle . Researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and their collaborators analyzed ancient DNA extracted from nine skeletons dating back to the 13th century, which were discovered in a burial pit in Sidon, Lebanon.

The results, published today (April 18) in the American Journal of Human Genetics, confirm that although the Crusaders mingled with the local population and recruited them to their cause, their genetic presence in the area was short-lived.

The Crusades were a series of religious wars fought between 1095 and 1291, in which Christian invaders attempted to claim the Middle East. The nobility is known to lead the Crusades, but historical records lack details of ordinary soldiers who traveled, lived, and died in the Near East.

In recent years, archaeologists have discovered 25 skeletons dating from the 13th century in a burial pit in Sidon, Lebanon. All of those found in the pit were male and had been brutally killed in the battle, as evidenced by blunt wounds to their skulls and other bones. Their bodies had been thrown into the pit and burned.

Nearby, an isolated skull was found. The head may have been used as a projectile that was catapulted into the opposition camp to spread disease and undermine morale, illustrating the brutality of the fighting.

Clues found next to the skeletons in the pit, such as European shoe buckles, a coin, and a carbon-14 dating scan, have led archaeologists to believe the human remains were Crusaders.

In a new study, researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute have produced whole-genome sequences of DNA from ancient skeletons and confirm that they were in fact crusaders.

The team reports that three individuals were Europeans of various origins, including Spain and Sardinia, four were Near Easterners who had been recruited for combat, and two individuals had mixed genetic ancestry, suggesting that they were the descendants of mixed Crusader and Near Eastern relations. .

Dr Chris Tyler-Smith, Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “Historical records tell us the names of the nobility who led the Crusades, but the identity of the soldiers has remained a mystery. Genomics gives unprecedented insight into the past and shows the Crusaders are from Western Europe and recruited people from the Near East to join them in battle. The Crusaders and the Near East lived, fought and died side by side.

However, researchers believe that the influence of the Crusaders in the region was short-lived as European genetic traces are insignificant in people living in Lebanon today.

When researchers sequenced the DNA of people living in Lebanon 2,000 years ago during the Roman period, long before the Crusades, they discovered that the Lebanese population today is genetically similar to the Roman Lebanese, suggesting that the crusades had no lasting impact on Lebanese genetics.

Dr Marc Haber, of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “The Crusaders traveled to the Middle East and cultivated relationships with the local population, their sons later joining to fight their cause. However, once the fighting was over, the mixed generation intermarried among the local population and genetic traces of the crusaders were quickly lost. “

In the study, the team worked with archaeologists at the Sidon excavation site to transfer the bones of the nine skeletons from Lebanon to a Cambridge laboratory dedicated to ancient DNA. Here, small portions of the surviving 800-year-old DNA were extracted from the temporal bones of skulls by DNA extraction experts. An ultra-sterile working environment has been set up by scientists to prevent samples from being contaminated with their own DNA, rendering them unusable.

Ancient DNA samples were particularly difficult to extract and sequence because the bodies had been burned and buried in a hot and humid climate, where DNA degrades rapidly. Recent advances in DNA extraction and sequencing technology have made it possible to study old and damaged DNA.

Dr Claude Doumet-Serhal, director of the Sidon excavation site in Lebanon, said: “I was delighted to discover the genetic identities of people who lived in the Middle East during the Crusades. Only five years ago, studies like this would not have been possible. The union of archaeologists and geneticists creates an incredible opportunity to interpret important events throughout history. “


Notes to Editors:

This press release is also available in French and Arabic, upon request.


Marc Haber et al. (2019) A Transient Impulse of Genetic Mixing of Crusaders in the Near East Identified from Ancient Genome Sequences. American Journal of Human Genetics. DOI: 10.1016 / j.ajhg.2019.03.015


This study was supported by Wellcome (098051).

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