The descendants of bronze age communities discovered near Lake Balaton

The descendants of bronze age communities discovered near Lake Balaton
A Bronze Age mass grave of eight people was discovered near Balatonkeresztúr, and its archaeogenomic analysis was carried out with the participation of researchers from the Department of Genetics at ELTE. The results on population genetics, which comprise several methodological innovations connected to research on genetic diseases, among other things, have been published in the prestigious journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

Due to the constantly changing water level of Lake Balaton over the past millennia, the artefacts discovered at the Balatonkeresztúr site could be associated with chronologically distinctly separated periods. The burials discussed in the study – also subjected to carbon isotope dating – were left behind by communities that belonged to the Somogyvár-Vinkovci, Kisapostag, and Encrusted Pottery archaeological cultures (2,560–1,620 BCE). Among these, the youngest unit was a mass grave of eight people, which served as the starting point for the archaeogenomic investigations. What makes this feature extraordinary is that the bodies of the eight individuals were placed in a single pit at the settlement. This was an unusual treatment as cremation was the typical burial rite of the period.

In cooperation with the research programme of the Lendület (“Momentum”) Mobility Research Group hosted by the Institute of Archaeology at the Hungarian Research Network, Research Centre for the Humanities (HUN-REN RCH), headed by Viktória Kiss, the human remains yielded by the excavated graves were subjected to genetic analysis by Dániel Gerber, a doctoral candidate at the Genetics Programme, Doctoral School of Biology, ELTE Faculty of Science. The research was supervised by Anna Szécsényi-Nagy, director of the HUN-REN RCH Institute of Archaeogenomics, and Eszter Ari, research associate at the ELTE Department of Genetics.

The analysis of the Whole genome composition

The primary goal of the tests covering the whole genome composition was to reconstruct the major events of the population’s history, which took place over a period of nearly one thousand years. The results demonstrate that among the burials discussed in the article, the earliest individual belonging to the Somogyvár-Vinkovci culture was one-third of the local people who lived in Southern Transdanubia at that time and two-thirds of the contemporary ethnic groups that populated Europe. The latter were presumably the descendants of a formerly uninvestigated Baltic branch of a population coming from the steppes of Eastern Europe and probably speaking Indo-European languages. In terms of genetic composition, the population represented by this individual was closer to that of the modern Balkans than the community belonging to the Kisapostag culture, which was displaced from the region sometime around 2,200 BCE. This newly arriving population – based on the complete genome analysis of eleven skeletal burials –

exhibited an outstandingly high Mesolithic hunter-gatherer ancestry in a European context.

The history of hunter-gatherers goes back to the pre-glacial age. They were the indigenous population of Europe before the spread of agriculture. Beginning with the seventh millennium BCE, hunter-gatherers gradually merged with the farming groups newly arriving from the Middle East. According to a generally accepted view, the last isolated communities disappeared from Europe by the beginning of the fourth millennium BCE. However, the recent genetic research of the population belonging to the Kisapostag culture seems to have considerably prolonged the time of their survival.

Balatonkeresztúr-Réti-dűlő, burial (mass grave) of eight individuals from the Middle Bronze Age, dated between 1,770 and 1,620 BCE
Photo by Szilvia Fábián, Repository of the Institute of Archaeology, HUN-REN RCH

The analysed group came from a rather understudied hunter-gatherer source that existed only a few hundred years before the emergence of the Kisapostag culture in Transdanubia. It is important to note that although another study published recently – presenting the results of some parallel research – emphasised the significance of this genetic component on the basis of data gathered from this region, it linked its source to the Baltics. Conversely, the results of the present publication point to a previously unidentified source that can be located in the region of today’s West Ukraine / Moldova.

“Following the genetic traces, we were able to identify several occurrences of the same population and also reconstruct their migration routes by studying finds of a similar age or belonging to earlier periods that came to light in the territory of Germany, Czechia, Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states.

These findings contribute to the resolution of several previous archaeological and genetic controversies concerning the prehistory of Europe,”

pointed out Dániel Gerber, the first author of the publication.

The individuals discovered in the mass grave associated with the Encrusted Pottery culture, who presumably died of an epidemic disease, were direct descendants of the community belonging to the Kisapostag culture. In addition, admixture with the native population living in the region (not related to the Somogyvár-Vinkovci culture) could be demonstrated along the maternal lineage, so their genetic legacy of special hunter-gatherer origin had already decreased.

It can be established that both communities had a patrilocal social structure.

In the light of previous genetic research concerning the Encrusted Pottery culture, these could have been regional patrilocal, clan-like communities. This population came to be known in the Carpathian Basin primarily for its pottery with characteristic decoration.

“According to genetic research, their communities also appeared in other regions of Central Europe later. For example, the remains of warriors associated with the first known war in Europe (which took place around 1,300 BCE) discovered during excavations in Tollense, Germany, were largely the representatives of this population – based on the strontium isotope data – and probably originated from the region of Prague,” said Viktória Kiss, Head of the Lendület (“Mobility”) Research Group hosted by the HUN-REN RCH Institute of Archaeology.

Despite the fact that the population migrations over the past four thousand years almost completely ousted this Bronze Age population, some patrilineal descendants in Hungary appear in the databases, which demonstrates that they contributed to the genetic development of the population of modern Hungary, even though to a small extent.


In addition to the results related to population genetics, the publication also comprises several methodological innovations, including the research of genetic disorders that occurred in the past communities under discussion.

The achievements include the identification of the first prehistoric individual who suffered from Jacob’s syndrome. An individual with a genetic disorder colloquially known as the “superman” syndrome had two Y chromosomes. The popular name refers to the belief that men with an extra Y chromosome tended to be more violent, but, in reality, this condition has not been proven to have such an effect.

The new findings also include

dizygotic twins in Balatonkeresztúr, the oldest detection of such relatedness;

the skeletons of two 1.5-2-year-old children, a boy and a girl, were found in the mass grave. Further genetic diseases detected include Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON), Lig4 syndrome leading to physical and mental retardation, hereditary spastic paraplegia (HSP) that caused stiffness in the muscles and therefore difficulties in movement, as well as autism. Although in numerous cases there is only indirect evidence of the appearance of symptoms in the case of the individuals concerned, the results contribute to the epidemiological research of hereditary diseases.

Grave No. S13 associated with the Kisapostag culture (ca. 2,100–1,900 BCE), contained the remains of a woman around the age of 35-45, who, similar to other members of the culture, was buried lying on her side, in a sleeping position. Her arms, however, were found in a strange, unusual position. Due to the surprisingly well-preserved skeleton and the genetic data, it was possible to reconstruct the burial and the face of the individual found in it. The reconstructions were carried out by Ágnes Kustár, Zsuzsa Herceg, and Fanni Gerber.

Thanks to the work of Ágnes Kustár, who passed away recently, a facial reconstruction of the Balatonkeresztúr woman from the Kisapostag culture, named Jelena by the researchers, could also be completed.

“This is not only the first female facial reconstruction from the Bronze Age in Hungary, but also the first one from the Bronze Age of East Central Europe,

which has been made possible by the genetic data providing us information on pigmentation (eye, hair, and skin colours),” added Anna Szécsényi-Nagy.