The legendary Battle of Himera was a victory of Greek heroism, sort of – Harvard Gazette

In 480 BC Humaira battleGreek forces defeated the Carthaginian invaders in a victory that heralded a period of peace and prosperity throughout the world. But while historians such as Herodotus hailed the victory as a triumph of Greek heroism and fortitude, studies of recently discovered mass graves have revealed that the combatants included large numbers of non-Greek fighters. A new study has found that the men who died violently were likely from as far afield as the Baltic and the Eurasian steppes, giving insight into the nature of these wars and the movements of people across extremely long distances in the classical world.

The new paper, “The Diverse Genetic Origins of the Greek Army in the Classical Period,” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, takes a genomic look at these alien fighters. An earlier study used isotopes to identify three-quarters of those in mass graves as “non-local”. Now, archaeologists from that study — including a professor of genetics and human evolutionary biology— David Reichfirst co-authors Laurie Retsima (University of Georgia) and Britney Kyle (University of Northern Colorado), they were able to perform an in-depth dive into genome-wide data from 16 individuals from these mass graves (plus another 38 ancient people from Sicily). Their analysis revealed that the mass graves, largely presumed to be mercenaries, hailed from as far afield as Ukraine, the Baltic region (present-day Latvia) and Thrace (present-day Bulgaria), Reich said.

said Alyssa Mitnick, a postdoctoral researcher at Reich Laboratory who led the genetic analysis team and another co-first author.

History was not helpful. “Much has been written about this event from historical records, but all historical information has biases,” Reich said. Documenting the apparent heroism of the Greeks in this battle, as well as in the battles with the invading Persians around the same time at Salamis and Thermopylae, the other end of the Greek world, was “important to the Greek identity of this period”.

One aspect of these accounts was the composition of the armies. “While it is known that in this time period mercenaries were used extensively, Greek historians do not mention the participation of mercenaries in Himera,” Mitnick said. “They could have been people the Greeks might consider foreign barbarians.”

Using DNA extracted from bones and teeth, the team provides surprising information about the origins of these non-Greek fighters. “We have data from tens of thousands, sometimes over a million locations in the genome,” Reich explained. “This data is similar in data quality to what one gets from sending your DNA to a personal strain testing company.” Reich said the data allowed the team to compare people’s ancestors from ancient Sicily with those of others “with extreme precision.”

“Combining genetic and isotopic findings tells us about people’s genetic origin and gives powerful clues about where they originated.” For example, he said, “Two people have typical ancestry of the Baltic region at that time, two have typical ancestry from the northern Balkans, and two have typical ancestry from the steppes north of the Black Sea.”

These findings highlight patterns of movement across the ancient world. “This provides direct evidence that people traveled long distances in their lives and shows that the motivation behind such travel was not just commerce but participation in war,” Mitnick said.

“It seems that the war has drawn people from particularly remote places,” Reich added.

For Mitnick, who has set up her own research group in Germany, this work fits perfectly into a larger programme. “I am interested in using ancient DNA to gain insight into the dynamics of societies,” she said. “I’m also working on reconstructing family trees and studying patterns in these lineages to see what they can show about social organization.”

The possibilities are global, Reich said. “Genetic data complement isotopic data and archaeological data, and by combining them, we get a richer and more accurate understanding of the past.”

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