Teeth shed light on migration history of Mesopotamia


Analysis of non-metric tooth crown traits of the ancient inhabitants of northern Mesopotamia conducted by the Polish team showed that there were no large migrations in this region from the 3rd millennium BC until the Middle Ages.

Teeth shed light on migration history of Mesopotamia
Sunset over the site Tell Aszara, where some of the study samples
were collected [Credit: A. Sołtysiak]

It was not until the invasion of the Mongols in the thirteenth century that a significant change of population occurred. Until now, researchers have believed on the basis of written sources that the movements of population in this part of the Middle East were much larger.

Recent research results have been published in Homo – Journal of Comparative Human Biology. The authors of the analyses are Arkadiusz Sołtysiak and Martha Bialon of the Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw.

The researchers analysed the non-metric tooth crown traits, for example, the shape of the incisors, the number of nodules on the molars, which are largely inherited and can be used instead of DNA testing to track population changes in prehistory.

Political, social and economic history of ancient southern Mesopotamia is well known from its many surviving archives containing written cuneiform tablets.

“For northern Mesopotamia we have far fewer resources and thus our knowledge of the region is poorer. We have increased it by examining human remains from this region” – explained Sołtysiak.

The team from the University of Warsaw examined non-metric tooth crown traits of teeth from 350 individuals from three sites located in the centre of the Euphrates valley (eastern Syria), inhabited on and off from the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC to late antiquity, and later used as a burial places. It turned out that until the Abbasid period (8th – 13th century AD) there were no significant changes in population in this area, despite the turbulent history of this part of the Middle East, many times conquered by invaders from the south (Hammurabi of Babylon), the east (Assyrians and Persians) and the west (Alexander of Macedon).

“We expected the lack of major migration for the bronze age, but not for the time of the great empires which followed with the expansion of the Assyrian state in the 9th/8th century BC. For this period, the written sources record large migratory movements, starting with the mass resettlement of millions of people by the Assyrian rulers, through the expansion of the Greeks in the Hellenistic period, to the mass migration during the Roman-Persian wars” – added the archaeologist.

The Polish study has shown that the movements of the population at that time did not have a significant impact on the local population living in the central part of the Euphrates valley and the only the invasion of the Mongols under the leadership of Hulagu, which devastated the whole Mesopotamia, changed the situation. Historical sources indicate that only in the 17th century the desolate middle Euphrates valley began to be resettled by Bedouins from the Arabian Peninsula. Only this migration led to significant changes in the occurrence of frequencies of the non-metric tooth crown traits – the researchers argue.

The research project was carried out with a grant from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education.

Source: PAP – Science and Scholarship in Poland [October 21, 2013]