DNA from stone age grave reveals oldest family tree in the world – Wissenschaft.de

An analysis of ancient DNA gives, for the first time, detailed insights into the family structures and burial practices of the Neolithic. Researchers have examined the genetic makeup of 35 people buried in a large burial site in Hazleton North, UK around 5,700 years ago. Accordingly, most people belonged to five generations of an extended family that goes back to a man and his four wives. The placements in the grave indicate that the patrilineal descent was particularly relevant, but that the women of the first generation also had a social significance for the community.

How did people live together in the Neolithic Age, what role did biological kinship play in social bonds, and how were their families structured? Old graves can provide insights into these questions. One of the best preserved Neolithic tombs is in the English parish of Hazleton, Gloucestershire. The Hazleton North burial site dates from around 3700 to 3600 BC and is divided into two separate, L-shaped chambers. One can be reached via a northern entrance, one via a southern entrance.

Extended family in a Neolithic grave

A team led by Chris Fowler from Newcastle University has now analyzed the DNA from the bones and teeth of the people buried in Hazleton North and, on this basis, reconstructed the world’s oldest family tree. “An extraordinary finding is that the remains of two branches of the same family were originally buried in each of the two halves of the grave,” reports Fowler. “This is of far-reaching importance because it suggests that the architectural design of other Neolithic graves could also reveal something about the relationships in these graves.”

Of the 35 people whose DNA Fowler and his colleagues analyzed, 27 were closely related: They formed five generations of an extended family. “This is the first direct evidence that at least some Neolithic graves were organized on the basis of kinship,” the researchers write. The reconstructed lineages of the individuals suggest that polygamy may have been common in society at the time. “We observed six cases from multiple reproductive partners,” the researchers report. They identified a man and four women as the first parents of the extended family. These women all had offspring with the same man, but some had additional offspring with a different father. Since these “step-sons” were also buried in the grave, the researchers conclude that social fatherhood in the Neolithic community may have been just as important as biological fatherhood.

The family tree. (Image: Newcastle University)

Paternal and maternal ancestry matter

It was noticeable that 26 of the 35 examined individuals were male. With the exception of two girls who died in childhood, the grave was almost exclusively women who had reproduced with male members of the family. There were no adult daughters in the grave. “This indicates a virilocal burial, that is, a burial in the line of the male partner and not in the line of the father,” explain the researchers. Earlier studies have also shown that it was mainly men who were buried in burial chambers, while women were more likely to be cremated and their remains were scattered outside of the graves that have survived to this day.

So who was buried in the grave was determined on the basis of the patrilineal kinship line. “The spatial allocation within the grave, on the other hand, is based on the maternal sublines,” the researchers report. The descendants of two first-generation mothers were all buried in the southern half of the grave, most of the descendants of the other two first-generation mothers in the northern half. “The family tree is divided into a ‘southern branch’ and a ‘northern branch’, each consisting of two maternal lines,” explain the researchers. “The fact that this duality is fundamental for the architecture of the grave leads to the assumption that the builders anticipated this division.” From the point of view of the researchers, this indicates the social significance of the four ancestral mothers.

Insights into prehistoric societies

For eight people in the grave, the researchers could not determine any biological relationship to the other buried. Three of them were women, and it is possible that they had a partner in the grave but either had no children or daughters who reached adulthood and left the community. The five unrelated men suggest that biological relationship was not the only criteria for inclusion.

According to the researchers, their study shows how modern techniques for analyzing ancient DNA can help gain insights into the life of prehistoric societies. “Just a few years ago it was difficult to imagine that we would ever know anything about Neolithic kinship structures,” says co-author Ron Pinhasi from the University of Vienna. “But this is just the beginning, and there is undoubtedly a lot more to discover, including at other sites in Great Britain, in Atlantic France and in other regions.”

Quelle: Chris Fowler (Newcastle University, UK) et al., Nature, doi: 10.1038 / s41586-021-04241-4


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