Two skeletons excavated in Syria before the civil war and once assumed to be prehistoric have been identified as among the earliest Islamic burials in the Levant.
According to archaeologists, analysis of the remains of the young man and woman buried close to each other in separate graves provides insights into early Islam and a period of religious and political shifts.
The bodies were among a number of burials discovered in excavations led by a Spanish-French team at Tell Qarassa, a Neolithic site in southern Syria, in 2009 and 2010.
Archaeogeneticist Cristina Valdiosera, of the University of Burgos, Spain, who coordinated the study, said indicators that two of them were of early Muslims, dating from the late 7th or early 8th centuries, came as a complete surprise. “With the goal of studying the first farming groups in the region we subjected the remains of 14 humans to ancient DNA analysis. 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.”
A reassessment of the burial style indicated that it would be consistent with Muslim practices. The positions of the skeletons suggested that they had been wrapped before burial and both were facing Mecca. Study of the bones and teeth indicated that one skeleton was of a male aged 14-15, while the other was of a woman aged 15-21.
In their paper, in Communications Biology, they wrote: “The absence of trauma to the bones and the young age of the deceased suggests that they could have died from disease, possibly the plague of Justinian which ravaged the Middle East from 541AD to 749AD recurring in cycles. Specifically, the dates of the burials may be linked to the outbreak of 79AH (698AD) which was reported in Syria by [historian] as-Suyuṭī. However, we did not find conclusive evidence of pathogens and the exact cause of their death remains difficult to pinpoint.”
The team said Muslims of the period would normally have been buried in a cemetery but Islam’s requirement for burial within 24 hours of death made compromises necessary and could explain their isolated resting place. It was possible that they were transient Muslims, travelling as nomads or pilgrims, for example, in a Christian-majority region.
DNA analysis indicated that they were not closely related to each other. However they both belonged to a group with a genetic signature resembling those of modern Bedouins from the Negev — whose ancestors may have migrated to the region from Arabia around 700AD — and modern Saudis.
They were not closely related to modern Syrians or any other modern or ancient Levantines whose DNA has been studied.
Stable isotope analysis of bone samples indicated that both individuals had diets high in animal products such as milk and meat, also consistent with the diet of nomadic Bedouins. The researchers said it was possible the young man and woman belonged to “groups that migrated from the Arabian Peninsula to the Levant during the early years of Islam and experienced strong cultural barriers that over time prevented mixing with neighbouring populations”.
Syria, which had been part of the Christian eastern Roman, or Byzantine, empire, was conquered by Arab Muslim armies during the 630s and became the centre of an Islamic empire after the founding of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus in 661. However, the spread of Islam and Arab identity and language took place over centuries.
The team said theirs was was the first genetic study of early Islamic burials in the region. The only previous genetic data related to early Islamic burials looked at remains from the south of France, where 8th century remains found near Nimes were identified as those of Berber soldiers.
They added that the remains provided additional evidence for the early adoption of specific Islamic burial rites that were followed even in remote locations.
And they wrote in conclusion that: “The genomic ancestry of the two individuals buried at Tell Qarassa in the late 7th or early 8th century offers a glimpse of early Islamic society in Syria . . . Our results suggest the early presence of Muslim Arabs in the Syrian countryside. Extensive additional sampling from different groups in this region is crucial to understand the extent of their genetic structure today and to potentially identify relatively genetically isolated populations, which could have implications for population genetic and clinical studies.
“The Middle East is a region with a complex history and a diverse ethnic and genetic composition, yet our current understanding of the genetic structure in the past and present appears to have only scratched the surface.”