The remains of children and adults found in a disused well in Norwich have been identified as victims of a bloody medieval pogrom, the researchers revealed.
The team said the discovery not only underscored the horror of the anti-Semitic atrocity, but provided new insights into when genetic disorders often found among Ashkenazi Jews first appeared.
“I’m really excited about that 12 years later [from our first investigations]we were finally able to use historical records, archeology and ancient DNA analysis to shed new light on a historical crime and, in doing so, we sequenced the oldest genomes of a Jewish population, “said Dr. Selina Brace. lead author of the research from the Natural History Museum in London.
The remains of at least 17 individuals were discovered in Norwich in 2004 during the construction of a site for a shopping center.
With no signs of bone trauma, it was possible that the remains were victims of famine or disease. But analysis of the bones and associated pottery more than a decade ago, which suggested they were dumped in the 12th or 13th century, ruled that out.
As a result, the research team suspected the bodies may have been victims of violence.
“We don’t know how they were murdered, but it seems very likely that they were,” Brace said, adding that it appears the bodies were deposited at the same time, with many thrown headlong.
Now Brace and his colleagues claim they have finally solved the medieval mystery.
I write in the journal Current Biologythe team says further radiocarbon dating analyzes revealed the bodies were deposited in the well between 1161 and 1216 AD.
The team says the time frame is consistent with an anti-Semitic massacre in Norwich in 1190 AD, detailed by chronicler Ralph de Diceto.
“Many of those who hurried to Jerusalem decided to rise up against the Jews first before they invaded the Saracens. Consequently on February 6th [in AD1190] all Jews who were found in their own homes in Norwich were massacred; some had taken refuge in the castle ”, he wrote in his Imagines Historiarum II.
But there were other violent events around the same time, including Hugh Bigod’s sack of Norwich in 1174 AD.
To learn more, the team turned to genetics.
The researchers’ previous DNA work, conducted for a television show, suggested that the individuals may have been Jewish and therefore killed in the pogrom, but the work involved only short bits of genetic material and the results were not conclusive.
Now, using recent advances in DNA analysis, the team has been able to piece together entire genomes for six individuals.
“When we look at the DNA from [the remains]they are actually more closely associated with modern Ashkenazi Jews than with any other modern population, “Brace said, noting that – with Jewish law largely prohibiting exhumation or disturbance of burials – genomes are the oldest ever sequenced from Jewish individuals.
The team found that three of the victims were sisters: a young adult, one between the ages of 10 and 15, and one between the ages of five and 10 with brown eyes and dark hair.
Another was a young red-haired boy with blue eyes, a significant discovery given that at the time that hair color was associated with European Jews. The other two individuals were a juvenile and an adult male.
The team also discovered genetic variants associated with diseases often seen in modern Ashkenazi Jewish populations, such as predisposition to certain types of cancer and delayed puberty.
But the frequency of such variants was much higher than expected. “That’s what you’d expect to see if those diseases were as common then as they are today,” Brace said.
Since genetic disorders usually become more common as a population shrinks in size, Ashkenazi Jews appear to have experienced a “bottleneck” before the 12th century, hundreds of years earlier than previously thought.
The team says the low frequency of the same genetic variants in the Sephardi Jewish community suggests that this bottleneck most likely occurred when the Jewish diaspora split during the early medieval period, rather than at a later event as previously thought.
Brace added that the remains were buried a few years ago. “They had a Jewish ceremony,” he told her.