A new study combining archaeological, historical, and bioarchaeological data sheds new light on the early Islamic period in modern-day Syria. The research team had planned to focus on a much older time period, but they came across what they believe to be early Muslim remains in the Syrian countryside.
The Middle East is well known as a region with a rich and fascinating history that encompasses a diverse range of ethnicities, cultures, and religious practices. While much of this diverse and dynamic history is known through historical records, the region’s impressive material culture, and archaeological sites, important bioarcheological data was previously more difficult to retrieve due to the poor preservation of organic materials in harsh environments.
New technologies that are more capable of analysing degraded material, however, have changed this and stories from prehistoric to historic times have emerged, enriching our knowledge of this region at the crossroads between three continents. Now, a multinational and interdisciplinary team is presenting new bioarchaeological insights into the early Islamic period in modern-day Syria.
Most of our evidence is indirect but the different types of data, taken together, point to this man and woman belonging to transient groups far from home, suggesting the presence of early Muslims in the Syrian countryside.Torsten Günther
Several burials were discovered during 2009 and 2010 excavations at the Neolithic site of Tell Qarassa in modern-day Syria. These excavations were coordinated by a Spanish-French team that included Syrian students in all archaeological campaigns, contributing to their archaeology training. The research was carried out with permission from and in close collaboration with the Syrian Arab Republic’s General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). The Syrian civil war began shortly after these excavations and continues to this day.
“With the goal of studying the first farming groups in the region, we subjected the remains of 14 humans to ancient DNA analysis,” says archaeogeneticist Cristina Valdiosera of the University of Burgos, Spain, who coordinated the study. “Only two individuals from upper layers of the site contained sufficient amounts of endogenous DNA and these came from graves that we assumed belonged to a later prehistoric period. After radiocarbon dating it became clear we had something unexpected and special.”
The graves were discovered during the Umayyad Era in the late 7th and early 8th centuries (the second caliphate). Given these surprisingly recent dates, a reevaluation of the burial style revealed that it was consistent with early Muslim burial practices. Without the radiocarbon dates, it would have been impossible to pinpoint this cultural identity because there were no previously known Muslim settlements or burial sites in the area, and the archaeological site itself was only known as a prehistoric site.
“The genomic results were also surprising as the two individuals seemed genetically different from most ancient or modern-day Levantines. The most similar — though not identical — modern-day groups were Bedouins and Saudis, suggesting a possible connection to the Arabian Peninsula,” says evolutionary biologist Megha Srigyan, who conducted the data analysis during her Master’s studies at Uppsala University, Sweden.
“Most of our evidence is indirect but the different types of data, taken together, point to this man and woman belonging to transient groups far from home, suggesting the presence of early Muslims in the Syrian countryside,” says population geneticist Torsten Günther at Uppsala University, who co-coordinated the study.
The analysis of one man and one woman provided evidence of new cultural/religious practices arriving in the Levant. “It is extraordinary that by studying just two individuals, we were able to uncover a small but remarkable piece of the colossal puzzle that makes up the history of the Levant,” says Cristina Valdiosera.
“There was no way we could have reached a conclusion in this particular case without combining the archaeological, historical, and bioarchaeological data, as each of these provided essential clues, emphasizing the importance of a multidisciplinary approach,” Torsten Günther concludes.
The human remains recovered in Qarassa, along with the rest of the archaeological material, were deposited at the Archaeological Museum of Sweida (Syria), and have since been under the control of the Syrian DGAM, in accordance with their regulations.