Happy birthday, HistoGenes!

On May 1, 2021, the HistoGenes project successfully concluded the first year of its research, funded by a Synergy Grant of the European Research Council (ERC). This is an exciting collaboration between geneticists, archaeologists, historians and anthropologists to study the population history of the Carpathian Basin in the 5th to 9th centuries. How did people live in their small communities in a time of frequent migrations and political changes? And to what extent was the population affected by mobility and shifts of rulership? Instead of looking for quick answers on the basis of a handful of genetic samples, we will do a full range of genomic analysis on 6000 individuals, a number unprecedented in any other ancient DNA project. What is also new is the close collaboration of scholars from all the different disciplines involved, and the careful interpretation of all materials from about 100 cemetery sites.

Getting together in the project was indeed a fascinating experience we had in the first year – although it was somehow limited by Covid restrictions. Our faces have become very familiar through our weekly zoom meetings, in which we learn much from each other and discuss our approaches and research strategies. However, most of us have not yet had the chance to really get to know each other in person, to chat over a drink or join an excursion. Of course, with the team distributed over several institutions between Princeton and Budapest and even beyond, online communication will always be a main channel for discussion. We have also installed an AirTable database of sites under scrutiny, in which all group members can access all relevant data, and which will provide open data access at the end of the project, in 2026. Another problem we had with Covid was the difficulty to obtain the samples from museums, and to transport them across boundaries. Recently, for instance, it has been impossible to transport skeletal material from the Natural History Museum in Vienna to the lab in Brno, normally a one-hour drive.

Still, we have already sampled over 1000 individuals, currently in different stages of the genomic workflow. We are now eagerly awaiting the data and their population genetic analysis. We can then compare the resulting models with the outcomes of anthropological and isotope analysis. All of this will be integrated with a thorough archaeological interpretation of the cemeteries. The often-spectacular grave goods allow reconstructing the cultural profile of the respective population groups, and we can see how far archaeological similarities match with genetic clusters. Finally, we will discuss how all this evidence corresponds to the written record. It is a big project, and it was not easy to get it going. But it is very rewarding to see how it unfolds.