By: Katy Rowe-Schurwanz

A recent ancient DNA paper examining the Goths and their origins is out, but not the ones you might be thinking of.

Today, the word “gothic” tends to bring to mind images of elaborate cathedrals such as Notre Dame de Paris, works of fiction such as Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and those by Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, or images of people dressed in black with Victorian, new wave, glam, and punk rock influences.

But the original Goths were a Germanic tribe active in the early first millennium CE.

Portrait of Alaric, a Visigoth, on horseback

While many things are known about the Goths, and much speculation has occurred, their origin has been a mystery for hundreds of years. A new paper sheds more light on the origins of the Gothic people.

The Origin of Goths and Their Split Into Visigoths, Ostragoths, and Crimean Goths

The origins of the Goths have been unclear. There is archaeological, historical, and linguistic evidence linking the Goths to the Wielbark culture along the Vistula River and Baltic Sea in Poland in the first and second centuries CE.

Map of the Vistula River and Baltic Sea in Poland

There is also evidence that the Goths moved from Poland into the areas of Ukraine, Moldova, and Romania in the third century, where they clashed with the Vandals, Huns, and Romans. They split into three groups: the Visigoths, Ostragoths, and Crimean Goths.

The Visigoths, or Western Goths, sacked Rome in 410 CE and spread into the Iberian Peninsula. They were pushed out of France by the Gauls in 507 CE and were mostly assimilated by the Umayyad Caliphate in the eighth century. A number of Goths fled to Asturias, where they joined with other groups and launched the Reconquista.

The Ostragoths, or Eastern Goths, were ruled by the Huns until overthrowing them and forming their own kingdom in Italy in the late fifth century. They clashed with the Byzantine Empire before falling to and being assimilated by the Lombards in 567 CE.

The Crimean Goths remained around the Black Sea. They fought off many invaders, including the Huns and Khazars, before they were conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. Crimean Gothic was the last linguistical survivor, going extinct in the late 19th century, although there are rumors of it being spoken still during World War II.

Sixth-century historian Jordanes, himself a descendant of the Goths, claimed the Goths originated in Gotland in Sweden and moved south across the Baltic Sea in the first century. There is circumstantial evidence for this claim, mainly the similarities between the names of the Goths and place names such as Gotland, Västergötland (home of Old English hero Beowulf), and Östergötland, as well as the names of other tribes from Sweden—the Geats and the Gutes.

However, Jordanes’ history Getica was written centuries after these origins, and surviving earlier histories do not mention the Goths’ potential Scandinavian origins.

Archaeological Evidence of Gothic Origins Supports Early Polish and Scandanavaian Theories

There is evidence of the Goths along the Vistula River in Poland in the first and second centuries, linking them with the Wielbark culture and other Germanic tribes. Burial sites and other artifacts show links to Gothic culture, establishing their presence in the region.

Gothic-style jewelry and metalwork have been discovered in Scandinavia, and there is much similarity between Gothic culture and that of other Scandinavian and Germanic tribes, but that alone cannot definitively confirm the Goth’s Scandinavian origins.

Based on archaeological evidence alone, the Goths may have originated in Scandinavia, Poland, or somewhere else entirely.

Gothic art and architecture spread throughout Europe from the 12th to 16th centuries. However, the Gothic name for this style is a misnomer; it has nothing to do with the Goths. Italian Renaissance painter and architect Giorgio Vasari said these buildings and artworks were created in a “barbarous German style” and blamed it on the Goths, whom he blamed for the destruction of ancient Roman buildings and art.

Linguistic Evidence of Gothic Origins

Like the Gothic art and architecture found across Europe, the Gothic fiction of the Victorian era and the Gothic horror of the 20th century are misnamed. In fact, only a few contemporary documents in the Gothic language survive today, most notably the most complete Gothic translation of the Bible, the Codex Argenteus, housed at Uppsala University. None of the surviving documents are fiction, and the majority are Biblical translations.

Östergötland in Sweden is home to a rune stone, the Rök stone, that mentions the Ostragothic King Theodoric the Great, who formed the Ostragothic kingdom in Italy (and should not be confused with Theodoric I, the king of the Visigoths). The stone is considered one of the oldest known sources of Swedish literature and was likely erected in the eighth century.

The Rök stone is written in early Old Norse runes. The Gothic Bible and other documents are written in the Gothic alphabet, which was developed in the fourth century CE expressly to translate the Bible and was based mostly on the Greek alphabet, not the Runic alphabet of the Germanic tribes.

The surviving Gothic documents are not enough to fully reconstruct the language. However, it is enough to place the Gothic language in the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family.

How is the Gothic Language Categorized in Linguistics?

The overwhelming majority of linguists divide the Germanic branch into three groups:

  1. East Germanic including the extinct languages Gothic, Vandalic, and Lombardic
  2. North Germanic including Old Norse and the languages that evolved from it—Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Icelandic
  3. West Germanic Old English, Old German, Old Dutch, and the modern versions of these languages

A minority of linguists group North Germanic and East Germanic together. The Gotho-Nordic hypothesis is based on Jordanes’ claims of a Gothic Scandinavian origin and cites a few linguistically significant differences shared by Old Norse and Gothic compared to the contemporary West Germanic languages.

Other linguists argue that Gothic is more similar to Upper German languages than to Scandinavian ones and suggest the Goths are more likely to have originated near Austria than in Sweden.

Fun fact: My favorite linguist, J.R.R. Tolkien, studied the Gothic language early in his career, and The Lord of the Rings contains many homages to the Goths.

  • The high-elven language Quenya is based on the Gothic language
  • Many Hobbit family names are taken from Gothic names, as are the names of the ancestors of the kings of Rohan.
  • The battle of Pelennor Fields, from Return of the King, is based on the battle of the Catalaunian Fields in 451 CE, where the Visigothic King Theodoric I is thrown from his horse and killed while battling the Huns.
  • Tolkien also wrote and published Bagme Bloma, which is the only known poem in the Gothic language to exist.

DNA Has Revealed and Confirmed

A 2019 genetic study reported on mitochondrial DNA analysis of an Iron Age cemetery attributed to the Goths near Masłomęcz in eastern Poland. 27 individuals were excavated, and their mitochondrial genomes were compared to those of other Iron Age individuals in surrounding regions. Close genetic links were found between the Masłomęcz individuals and two other tribes in Jutland and western Poland. The Masłomęcz cemetery also had greater genetic diversity than that of other Iron Age central European regions, suggesting a migration into the region. While not conclusive evidence, the study suggests that it is possible the Goths and the associated Wielbark culture originated in Scandinavia prior to migrating south across the Baltic Sea into Poland.

A new 2023 study of 474 individuals examines the origins and genome-wide DNA of the Iron Age Gothic and Wielbark cultures along with the Middle Age Slavs, of whom there is a similar debate on their arrival in Poland—one hypothesis being that the Slavs were already in Poland during the Iron Age and the other being that the Slavs did not arrive in Poland until at least the sixth century CE.

The study looked at the Y-DNA haplogroups found in the Iron Age and Middle Age samples and compared those to modern-day populations in both Northern Europe and East-Central Europe. The Iron Age samples had a higher frequency of I1 haplogroups, which are associated today with Scandinavian and British populations. The Middle Age samples had a higher frequency of R1a haplogroups, which are associated today with East and Central Europe, although I1 haplogroups were still present. Analysis indicated that the genetic changes in first century CE Poland were a result of male migration into the region.

Data from the study was in line with the hypothesis that the Iron Age Gothic/Wielbark population was comprised of individuals who immigrated from Northern Europe and mixed with the existing population in Poland. The study also concluded that the Middle Age population was derived from the Iron Age population, and a sixth-century migration from East-Central Europe is not necessary to form the genetic makeup of the tested individuals, both it also does not exclude such a migration. It was concluded that a migration from Northern Europe was necessary to form the genetic makeup of the Iron Age population.

Find Out if You Match!

FamilyTreeDNA has added the Y-DNA results from this new study to Ancient Connections in Discover™. If you already have Y-DNA results, sign in to your account and navigate to Discover to find out if you match! If you haven’t ordered a Y-DNA test, get yours today.

Headshot of Katy Rowe-Schurwanz - Product Manager at FamilyTreeDNA

About the Author

Katy Rowe-Schurwanz

Product Manager at FamilyTreeDNA

Katy Rowe has always been interested in genealogy, inspired by her maternal grandparents, who told her stories about their family and family history when she was little. After studying anthropology and history in college, she joined FamilyTreeDNA in 2015 and became the Trainer for Customer Support. Katy created and improved training processes and was fundamental in the creation of the Big Y Specialist team. In September 2021, she became Product Manager and has focused closely on improving FamilyTreeDNA’s genetic genealogy products.