DNA Analysis Confirms Family Massacred By Mongol Army In 13th Century Suffered Violent Death

Genetic analysis confirms the relationship between three individuals brutally murdered during a Mongol army raid on the Russian city of Yaroslavl in 1238, lending a new deeper understanding to the events that transpired during one of the most gruesome massacres in medieval times.

Batu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, was tasked with invading Europe in 1235, violently killing civilians and successfully conquering all of Russia in his wake. Recent historical analyses suggest that the transition from Rus (present-day Russia) into Batu’s Golden Horde was “almost peaceful and voluntary” with “practically no major atrocities committed” – something researchers now say is almost certainly not the case.

“Batu Khan’s conquest was the greatest national tragedy, surpassing any other event in cruelty and destruction. It is not by chance that it is among the few such events that made its way into the Russian folklore,” Engovatova said. “What we now know about those raids suggests that chronicle descriptions of ‘a city drowned in blood’ were not merely a figure of speech.”

In 2005, researchers began excavating the site of Assumption Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church from Medieval Russia that was demolished in 1937 and restored between 2004 and 2010. In the course of just five years, nine mass graves with over 300 individuals showing signs of violent death were revealed. To reconstruct the events of the siege, scientists turned to a grave in the inner part of the city known as No. 76. Here, 15 corpses were buried in a shallow pit without a ritualistic burial from the time. Some were in different poses while others had been badly decomposed by the time they were buried, suggesting that they had been placed in a mass grave perhaps for sanitary reasons following a massacre.

Left: blowfly larvae found in the mass grave. Right: graphic reconstruction of the individual from burial No. 76. Sergey Nikitin/Institute of Archaeology, Russian Academy of Sciences

Etymological analysis suggests that three of the individuals in the grave were related, and died in late May or early June 1238, corresponding with Batu Khan’s pillage on the city. Researchers pulverized and extracted the remains, which showed similar epigenetic features, and confirmed that they were in fact familial and displayed abnormalities that suggest intermarriages from within the family.

“In addition to recreating the overall picture of the fall of the city in 1238, we now see the tragedy of one family,” said Asya Engovatova, deputy director of the Institute of Archaeology, in a statement. “DNA analysis has shown that there were remains of genetically related individuals representing three generations. Anthropological data suggest these were a grandmother aged 55 or older, her daughter aged 30 to 40 and grandson, a young man of about 20. A fourth member of the family related through the female line was buried in the neighboring mass grave.”

Announcing the findings at the eighth Alekseyev Readings in Moscow, the researchers note that their work allows a more accurate discussion of 13th-century events and “the way of life with more certainty.” 

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