Researchersfrom the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and the Russian Academy ofSciences Institute of Archaeology have used DNA testing to prove close genetickinship between three individuals buried in a mass grave following the captureof the Russian city Yaroslavl by Batu Khan's Mongol army in 1238. This confirmsthe hypothesis made by archaeologists and anthropologists after studying theremains of 15 persons interred on a historic estate.
"Inaddition to recreating the overall picture of the fall of the city in 1238, wenow see the tragedy of one family," said Asya Engovatova, deputy directorof the Institute of Archaeology, RAS, and head of excavations on the Yaroslavlsite. "DNA analysis has shown that there were remains of genetically relatedindividuals representing three generations. Anthropological data suggest thesewere a grandmother aged 55 or older, her daughter aged 30 to 40 and grandson, ayoung man of about 20. A fourth member of the family related through the femaleline was buried in the neighboring mass grave."
"Importantly,these family relations were initially postulated by archaeologists andanthropologists, and then confirmed by genetic data," the scientist added."This makes our research more evidential and allows us to discuss the13th-century events and way of life with more certainty."
Theresearchers announced their discovery at the eighth Alekseyev Readings, aninternational conference held Aug. 26-28 at the Anuchin Research Institute andMuseum of Anthropology in Moscow.
Historicalrecords name Yaroslavl among other cities devastated by Batu Khan's army duringhis military campaign against the Grand Duchy of Vladimir in the early 13thcentury. However, the true scope of the tragedy only became clear in 2005, whensalvage excavations began on the site of the city's Assumption Cathedral, builtin the early 13th century, demolished in 1937, and restored between 2004-2010.Over just five years, nine mass graves and over 300 buried individuals who haddied a violent death were found, more than in the other ravaged cities. Thefindings of prior research then enabled a detailed reconstruction of theevents: It was proved that the unearthed victims died during the capture ofYaroslavl by Batu Khan's forces in February 1238.
"BatuKhan's conquest was the greatest national tragedy, surpassing any other eventin cruelty and destruction. It is not by chance that it is among the few suchevents that made its way into the Russian folklore," Engovatova said."What we now know about those raids suggests that chronicle descriptionsof 'a city drowned in blood' were not merely a figure of speech."
"Thefirst third of the 13th century saw the conquest of China, Central Asia, theCaucasus, Volga Bulgaria, and the part of the East European Plain whereYaroslavl lies," the researcher went on. "Some publications of thepast 10-15 years took the viewpoint that the inclusion of Rus [the present-dayRussia] into the Golden Horde was almost peaceful and voluntary, withpractically no major atrocities committed. But it is now obvious this was notreally the case."
One of themass graves -- now identified as No. 76 -- was located at the center of theinner city citadel. There, corpses were buried in a shallow pit on a richhomestead burned during the assault on the city. The main wooden house and theoutbuildings on the estate contained many artifacts, pointing to the highstatus of the owners.
That gravein particular attracted the researchers' attention, because the pit for it wasdug on purpose, while the other mass graves nearby were located in thebasements of houses and burned-down outbuildings. That kind of burialcontradicted the norms of the day and did not observe the ritual. The 15 men,women, and children in the pit were unearthed in different poses, and some ofthe corpses had badly decomposed by the time they were interred. This stronglysuggests that the bodies were simply disposed of in that way, for sanitaryreasons.
Many ofthe corpses bore marks of a violent death on the bones -- traces of unhealedpiercing and cutting wounds. Some of the bones were burnt, pointing to the firethat ravaged the city.
Flylarvae, shown in figure 1 (left), were found in the remains, indicatingadvanced stages of decomposition and allowing the researchers to date theburial. By identifying the blowfly species, entomologists knew at what averagedaily temperature their larvae would reach the observed stage of development.That temperature corresponded to late May or early June conditions.
"Thedata on the time they were buried are very precise and support theanthropologists' hypothesis that the corpses had partly decomposed. Thesepeople were killed, and their bodies remained lying in the snow for a fairlylong time. In April or May, flies started to multiply on the remains, and inlate May or early June they were buried in a pit on the homestead, which iswhere they probably had lived," Engovatova said.
Anthropologistsstudying the remains were the first to hypothesize kinship between some of theburied individuals. This was suggested by epigenetic feature similarities: thepresence of a birth defect known as spina bifida, a persistent metopic suture,an expressed osteoma on the cranial vault, and intercondylar fossacharacteristics.
Theanthropology group also inferred possible intermarriages within the family fromcertain abnormalities that are characteristic of children born from suchmarriages. Apart from that, the members of this family suffered from toothdecay more than the other buried individuals. Since it predominantly developsin connection with a diet rich in sugars and carbohydrates, the familyapparently consumed more sugar and honey than their average contemporaries.
KharisMustafin and Irina Alborova led the research team from MIPT's Historical Genetics,Radiocarbon Analysis and Applied Physics Lab, which undertook a complexmolecular and genetic study of the remains of eight buried individuals. Theteam cleaned the archaeological samples of bones and teeth, pulverized them,and recovered the ancient DNA. Its analysis revealed the same mitochondrial DNAmutations in three individuals, while studying autosomal DNA markers suppliedthe data on how closely the persons were related. In addition, onemitochondrial DNA line pointed to a fourth possible maternal relative, buriedin a neighboring grave.
"Geneticstudies have confirmed the relationship between three of them. They wereprobably members of the same wealthy, high-ranking family," Engovatovasaid. "The location of the estate at the center of the citadel confirmsthis, and so do the archaeological finds made on the estate. Even a hangingseal was found. This might well be the very family that owned the richhomestead excavated 3 meters from the grave."

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