DNA test traces direct descendants of Great Moravian noblemen

Uherské Hradiště Sady, photo: Palickap, CC BY 3.0 Unported

More than eleven centuries after the fall of the Great Moravian Empire, there are still direct descendants from the Slavic noblemen living among us. A study of DNA samples, carried out recently by the Moravian Museum in Brno, found eleven men from the region of Uherské Hradiště who definitely have Great Moravian ancestors in their bloodlines.

Uherské Hradiště Sady,  photo: Palickap,  CC BY 3.0 Unported
The Great Moravian Empire was the first west-Slavic state to emerge in the Central European area on what is now the territory of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and Serbia. It was founded around the year 830 by the Slavic leader Mojmír and was the first joint state of the Slavonic tribes that became later known as Czechs and Slovaks.

A recent genetic testing, carried out by the Moravian Museum in Brno as part of a larger historical and archaeological survey, has discovered that more than a thousand years after the collapse of the empire, there are still direct male descendants of the Great Moravian noblemen living in the area.

The study compared the Y chromosome markers, that is DNA inherited from father to son, of more than 340 men with the DNA samples of 75 men buried between the 9th and 13th centuries near the town of Uherské Hradište. Luděk Galuška, the Head of the Centre for Slavonic Archaeology at the Moravian Museum in Brno, outlines more details:

“The research was part of a large project focused on one of the best known Great Moravian archaeological sites called Uherské Hradiště Sady. In the 1950s and 1960s a large religious settlement was uncovered here, including a large church and a baptistery, surrounded by nearly 1,000 tombs. Around ninety of them dated back to Great Moravia, while the rest were from the10th to 13th centuries.”

According to experts, the settlement was most likely a centre of the Holy Moravian Empire and the seat of St Methodius, the Archbishop of Great Moravia.

Methodius and his brother Cyril came to Great Moravia at the request of Duke Rostislav to spread Christianity in this part of the world. They also translated the Bible into Slavic languages.

Luděk Galuška says the settlement was most likely part of Veligrad, one of the most important centres of Christianity on the territory of Great Moravian Empire:

“It was a large fortified agglomeration covering around 200 hectares of land. It was inhabited by dukes, noblemen, craftsmen, tradesmen but there were also representatives of the lower classes, mostly farmers but also slaves.

“So imagine an early medieval town with two to three thousand inhabitants, which is a big town for the ninth century. It is quite possible that members of the ruling family also lived there.

“I believe that even Duke Svatopluk himself could have lived here in the mid-ninth century and most probably also Archbishop Methodius.”

St Cyril and Methodius,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
To narrow down the search for possible descendants of the Great Moravian noblemen, buried at the site of Uherské Hradiště Sady, experts from the Moravian Museum in Brno decided to approach local archivists.

“We have of course contacted local archivists and asked them to search for people with surnames that appeared in the oldest registry offices as far back as in the 16th and 17th centuries. They selected around 15 names for each of the smaller districts.

“We also preferred people who had some previous knowledge of their families’ history and have already traced their family trees. Many of the people who cooperated with us have really traced their descendants all the way back to the mid-17th century.”

Considering that there are more than 1,000 years separating the Great Moravians from their contemporaries, Mr Galuška says the result of the testing came as a surprise. Out of the 340 men selected for the genetic testing, 18 of them shared their DNA markers with seven individuals buried at the site. Eleven of these men are most certainly linked to three members of the Great Moravian nobility.

“I secretly hoped to find at least one or two genetic links in the current population that could be linked all the way to the period between 9th and 13th centuries.

“You have to realize East Moravia used to be a very restless area bordering with Hungary. It was affected by a number of wars, such as the Thirty-Years War, so the local inhabitants suffered a great deal and were greatly affected by all the conflicts.”

Given the fragmentary nature of written sources from the ninth century, linking the graves to any specific figures is virtually impossible, says Mr Galuška.

Nevertheless, there are other signs that reveal a great deal about the people who are buried in the graves:

“What we do know is that if someone was buried inside a church or in its hallway and he was buried in a wooden coffin with forged metal fittings, he must have definitely come from the highest society levels. That person was either a nobleman or a member of the ruling family.

“Indeed the DNA tests have shown that at least four representatives of the noble society of the time have contemporary descendants. And we also know that one of the noblemen was definitely a member of the ruling society, since he was buried in a special chapel at Sadská výšina.”

One of the eighteen men whose DNA was linked to that of the Great Moravian noblemen is Marek Miklíček from Ostrožská lhota, a small village south of Uherské Hradiště. He says he only started tracing his family tree after he took part in the DNA testing.

“I didn’t know anything about my family before. Only after I found out, I started tracing our history and creating a family tree and I discovered that my family has lived in the same village since mid-17th century.

“I was really surprised. I couldn’t believe our paternal line has been preserved for over one thousand years, considering there were several wars and plague epidemics in the region over the centuries.”

The testing of DNA samples was in fact just a minor part of a large-scale research, which has been underway for several years, looking at archaeology, history, anthropology, as well as other fields, including nutrition, health and genetics. The Moravian Museum in Brno is cooperating on the research with experts from the medical and scientific faculty of the Masaryk University in Brno, the criminal and archaeological department of the Academy of Sciences as well as a genetic lab at the Michigan University in the United States.

Luděk Galuška of the Centre for Slavonic Archaeology says they have come across many interesting discoveries over the years:

“We have discovered, for instance, that the upper classes enjoyed eating sea fish. This might seem unlikely for a Central European region, but there were various ways seafood could find way its way to the table of the Great Moravians.

Luděk Galuška,  photo: YouTube
“First of all, there was extensive foreign trade, but sea fish could also find their way into the large rivers, such as the Danube. The Slavs could have also eaten salted herrings, because salt was a regular commodity.

“We also know that they ate a lot of meat, which was not that common at the time. This is further proof that they were members of the ruling class.”

Although the Great Moravian Empire ceased to exist at the beginning of the tenth century, new graves continued to appear at the burial site at Uherské Hradiště for centuries to follow, when the region came in the hands of the Premyslid dynasty.

Experts from the Moravian Museum in Brno are planning to continue with their research, focusing on other burial sites in Moravia as well as at Prague Castle to see if they can find any links between the Great Moravians and the Premyslid dynasty.