A team of researchers have identified two individuals excavated at the Neolithic site of Tell Qarassa in modern-day Syria as dating to the Umayyad Period (AD 661–750), and found evidence that they could represent some of the earliest examples of Islamic burials.
Excavations by a Spanish-French team were conducted at Tell Qarassa between 2009 and 2010 with the objective of shedding light on Neolithic farming groups in the region.
They uncovered the remains of 14 individuals, only two of which were found to contain sufficient DNA for subsequent analysis.
The two individuals were excavated from separate, narrow graves situated in close proximity. Both were deposited on their side, oriented east-west, and possibly wrapped before burial as suggested by the distribution of the skeletal elements.
Morphological and dental analysis revealed one individual was a male aged around 14 and 15 years old, and the other a female aged between 15 and 21.
Both sets of remains were radiocarbon dated to the late 7th and early 8th centuries AD, a period coinciding with the second caliphate, which was ruled by the Umayyad dynasty.
This period was a time of great cultural and religious upheaval in the Middle East, as it saw the rise and expansion of the Arab Islamic empire.
According to the new scientific study, funded and coordinated by Uppsala University and recently published in Communications Biology, the radiocarbon dates, evidence of enshrouding, and orientation of the remains towards Mecca indicate the graves could represent some of the earliest Islamic Arab burials in the Levant.
There is, however, no archaeological evidence of a permanent Muslim settlement in the area, suggesting the Umayyad Era burials are not part of a traditional cemetery.
Shotgun-sequencing of petrous bone samples from both individuals revealed they shared genomic similarity with a subgroup of modern-day Bedouins from the Negev desert in Israel, as well as modern-day Saudis, suggesting a possible connection to the Arabian Peninsula.
‘The genomic results were also surprising as the two individuals seemed genetically different from most ancient or modern-day Levantines,’ commented Megha Srigyan, an evolutionary biologist from Uppsala University.
‘Most of our evidence is indirect,’ added Torsten Günther, a population geneticist at Uppsala University. ‘But the different types of data, taken together, point to this man and woman belonging to transient groups far from home, suggesting the presence of early Muslims in the Syrian countryside.’
The research was conducted with permission from the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) of the Syrian Arab Republic, and the remains are currently housed at the Archaeological Museum of Syria.