The pre-Roman Iron Age Celtic culture in Western and Central Europe has left behind numerous artifacts, including large burial mounds and impressive archaeological finds. Despite this rich legacy, much about this civilization remains shrouded in mystery.

Recently, a collaboration between the State Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments in Baden-Württemberg and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA) in Leipzig has provided new insights into Celtic society through the reconstruction of genomes from individuals buried in several ancient burial mounds.

The burial mounds of Eberdingen-Hochdorf and Asperg-Grafenbühl, known as Fürstengräber, are among the richest prehistoric burials in Germany, containing gold artifacts and intricate bronze vessels.

Reconstruction of the Hochdorf burial mound.
Reconstruction of the Hochdorf burial mound. Credit: O. Braasch / Landesamt für Denkmalpflege im Regierungspräsidium Stuttgart

A new genetic analysis has now revealed that two princes buried about 10 kilometers apart were closely related biologically.

It has long been suspected that the two princes buried in the Eberdingen-Hochdorf and Asperg ‘Grafenbühl’ mounds were related, says Dirk Krausse from the State Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments. But this assumption has only now been confirmed through new analyses.

For the current study, teeth and bone samples from the inner ear region of the skull were collected and sequenced at the MPI-EVA using the latest methods, reconstructing the genomes of a total of 31 individuals. The two central burials stood out due to their close genetic relationship.

Gold jewellery of the Lady of Ditzingen-Schöckingen.
Gold jewellery of the Lady of Ditzingen-Schöckingen. Credit: H. Zwietasch / Landesmuseum Württemberg

Two Closely Related Princes

After establishing a genetic link between the two individuals, the research team explored various possible connections, such as brothers, half-brothers, grandfather and grandson, as well as uncle and nephew.

Based on the precise death dates, age estimates at death, and genetic similarity of the two princes, only one scenario is plausible: the Hochdorf prince’s sister was the mother of the Asperg prince, explains Stephan Schiffels from MPI-EVA.

This result indicates that political power in this society was likely inherited through biological succession, akin to a dynasty, says Joscha Gretzinger from MPI-EVA.

Rich gold finds and the hat made from birch bark from Eberdingen-Hochdorf.
Rich gold finds and the hat made from birch bark from Eberdingen-Hochdorf. Credit: P. Frankenstein / H. Zwietasch / Landesmuseum Württemberg

This conclusion is further supported by evidence of relationships among other individuals from the two mounds, as well as from the much more distant Magdalenenberg mound, constructed approximately 100 years earlier.

Gretzinger adds, Overall, it appears we are dealing with a wide network among the Celts in Baden-Württemberg, where political power was supported by biological kinship.

But how were these Celts related to other inhabitants of Iron Age Europe beyond Baden-Württemberg? A detailed analysis of the genetic origins of this group reveals a genetic heritage likely rooted in present-day France, which was widespread across southern Germany at that time.

Visualisation of the central grave/main burial of the Hochdorf mound.
Visualisation of the central grave/main burial of the Hochdorf mound. Credit: Thomas Hoppe / Landesmuseum Württemberg, FaberCourtial

Additionally, several individuals showed genetic origins from Italy, which correlates well with the Mediterranean-style objects found in the graves.

Therefore, the study is a crucial piece in understanding European history during the Middle and Late Iron Age. Unlike the Roman period and other early medieval times, this era cannot be thoroughly investigated through written sources. The genetic evidence provides a new dimension to our understanding of Celtic society and its political structures.


Sources

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology | Gretzinger, J., Schmitt, F., Mötsch, A. et al. Evidence for dynastic succession among early Celtic elites in Central Europe. Nat Hum Behav (2024). doi.org/10.1038/s41562-024-01888-7


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