DNA Analysis Sheds Light On Victims Of 12th Century Violence

In 2004, workers on a construction site in Norwich, England, stumbled upon an 800-year-old well as they prepared the ground for a new shopping center. Inside the well, MyHeritage reported, they uncovered a heartbreaking and chilling sight: the remains of 17 people, including 6 adults and 11 children.

A study titled: “Genomes from a medieval mass burial show Ashkenazi-associated hereditary diseases pre-date the 12th century”, was published in Current Biology.

A summary of the study provides more information:

We report genome sequence data from six individuals excavated from the base of a medieval well at a site in Norwich, UK. A revised radiocarbon analysis of the assemblage is consistent with these individuals being part of a historically attested episode of antisemitic violence on 6 February 1190 CE. 

We find that four of these individuals were closely related and all six have strong genetic affinities with modern Ashkenazi Jews. We identify four alleles associated with genetic diseases in Ashkenazi Jewish populations, and infer variation in pigmentation traits, including the presence of red hair.

Simulations indicate that Ashkenazi-associated genetic disease alleles were already at appreciable frequencies, centuries earlier than previously hypothesized. These findings provide new insights into a significant historical crime, into Ashkenazi population history, and into the origins of genetic diseases associated with modern Jewish populations.

MyHeritage noted that the researcher’s findings pointed to a very significant historical event. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the individuals died somewhere between 1161 and 1216 – and it was known that an antisemitic massacre took place in Norwich in 1190, carried out by residents setting out on the Third Crusade. Though not definitive, the evidence strongly suggests that the individuals found in the well were victims of this attack.

The researchers wrote that Norwich had been the setting for a previous notable event in the history of medieval antisemitism when, in 1144 CE, the family of William of Norwich claimed that local Jews were responsible for his murder, an argument taken up by Thomas Monmouth through the first documented invocation of the blood libel myth. This, the researchers wrote, represents the beginnings of an antisemitic conspiracy theory that persists up to present day.

In addition, the researchers noted that the possibility that the remains found at the Chapelfield well site where those of the victims of antisemitic violence is given further support by the site’s location just to the south of the medieval Jewish quarter of the city. Norwich witnessed a number of outbreaks of large-scale violence, and additional data were therefore required to test the hypothesis that these individuals were of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.

According to MyHeritage, honoring the dead is an extremely important value in Jewish tradition, and disturbing Jewish burial sites is considered a severe violation of the dignity of those laid to rest there. Out of respect for this aspect of Jewish culture, scientists have never analyzed the DNA of ancient people known to be Jewish before.

In this case, the researchers were not aware that these individuals were likely Jewish until after the genetic analysis had already been carried out. The researchers then proceeded with the support and cooperation of the Norwich Hebrew Congregation and the Office of the Chief Rabbi. The remains were reburied in the local Jewish cemetery in 2013 and their burial site was marked with a commemorative plaque.

In short, the researchers inferred familial relationships among the Chapelfield group based on pairwise relatedness and summary statistics. They learned that three individuals were full-sibling sisters. This included a 10-to-15 year old; a young adult; and a 5-to-10-year old. These sisters shared the mitochondrial haplotype H5c2.

Another individual (SB696) appeared to be more distantly related to the sisters, and individual SB676 is in turn distantly related to the previous individual. Based on genetics, the researchers concluded that they were second-degree relatives of the sisters.

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