Genetics confirms that ancient Rome was a migratory melting pot

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AFP, published on Thursday, November 07, 2019 at 8:02 pm

The analysis of 127 skeletal genomes from the 12,000-year-old region of Rome shows that the imperial capital was populated by immigrants from the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.

This is the first time that genetics has confirmed in such detail the history of Rome, which reigned for centuries around the Mediterranean.

When Rome was the capital of the empire (from 27 before JC to 300), the Romans resembled the current Mediterranean populations, similar to the Greeks, Maltese, Cypriots and Syrians, write the authors led by researchers of Stanford and Italian universities .

The new techniques of ancient DNA analysis have made it possible to reconstruct the population transitions over the millennia and the rise of Rome.

The oldest skeletons analyzed are those of three hunter-gatherers who lived about 10,000 to 7,000 years before our era. At the time, these "Italians" resemble their congeners on the other side of the Alps.

Then the appearance of agriculture and livestock, in the Neolithic, saw the emergence of farmers from Anatolia (modern Turkey), as throughout Europe.

Between 900 and 200 years before our era, Rome began to differentiate itself from the rest of Europe. It is turning into a major city, immigration is increasing, the population is swelling. The genomes of this period reveal the presence of individuals from the Middle East and North Africa.

Then Rome became the capital of an empire of 50 to 90 million people, and it itself had a million inhabitants. Ethnicity then changes dramatically, with a large majority coming from the eastern Mediterranean.

Of 48 genomes, the researchers found that "very few individuals mostly from Western Europe," they write. Only two.

"Diversity was absolutely overwhelming," one of the authors, Ron Pinhasi of the University of Vienna, who extracted DNA from the bones, told Science.

This diversity then diminished after the displacement of the capital to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 330 and the split of the Empire, causing the decline of Rome. From the Middle Ages, the Romans resembled the rest of the Europeans again.

"People may imagine that the level of migration we are seeing today is a new phenomenon," said Science Geneticist Jonathan Pritchard at Stanford. "But ancient DNAs show that people have been mixing strongly for a long time."

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