Czechs are predominantly descendants of pre-Slavic populations, says archaeogenetics expert

Říp hill, photo: Aktron / CC BY-SA 3.0

The interdisciplinary study of archaeology and genetics can bring about many new discoveries, some of which have helped shed new light on periods previously clouded in myth. One of these is a more precise understanding of the ancestors that make up today’s Czech population, which is apparently more pre-historic than Slav.

Jaromír Beneš,  photo: University of South Bohemia
The mythical story of father Čech leading his tribe to the top of Říp hill and announcing that the untouched surroundings are the new homeland of his kin is an iconic national origin tale still taught in Czech elementary schools.

Quite reminiscent of the Biblical story of Moses and the Israelites, it is almost certainly a fiction devised by medieval chroniclers.

In fact, it seems that the first Czech settlers were young warriors who raided the countryside. At least according to Dr. Jaromír Beneš, the man in charge of the Laboratory for Paleoethnobotany and palaeoecology at the faculty of the University of South Bohemia, who recently spoke to Czech Radio about the nation’s genetic origins.

“This was a period after the fall of the Roman Empire, when there were ethnic groups, predominantly made up of young warriors, moving around. These warriors passed through various territories and migrated, but would sometimes also return home.

“Their favourite economic activity was raiding. It is in this form that we can picture the arrival of the Czechs into the Bohemian basin.”

These proto-Czech raiders also seem to have arrived from a location that was nearby, most likely from Poland.

Archaeologists believe such warrior bands created new settlements, which operated in a largely separate existence to the locals for a century or two. Gradually, as they expanded further, the local population was subdued.

The conquerors’ language and culture became dominant, but the core genetic imprint less so, says Dr. Beneš.

“The Czech population is predominantly descended from the prehistoric population, before the arrival of the Slavs. We are biologically a majority pre-Slav population.

Říp hill,  photo: Aktron / CC BY-SA 3.0
“The pictures we have from the DNA of the old and present Central European population shows that we are in fact majority Central Europeans and Czechs with a slightly larger affinity to Western Europe rather than Eastern Europe.”

According to the archaeogenetics expert, this closeness to Western European populations is the result of the spread of peoples from the so-called Bell Beaker culture into Central Europe during the Neolithic period roughly four thousand years ago.

Within the country there are also noticeable regional divides in ancestry. Czechs from South-West Bohemia are closer to the Bavarian population, whereas their compatriots from Eastern Bohemia are closer to Poles, Slovaks and Moravians.

Furthermore, Dr. Beneš says it is important to distinguish between the indigenous lowland populations and those from Sudeten mountain border areas.

The latter was radically changed in the aftermath of World War II. However, even the Sudeten Germans, who originally lived in this area, only settled during the Middle Ages. The origins of the Czech lowlands population are much older.