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Ancient DNA reveals five generations buried in one Neolithic tomb

Analysis of ancient DNA from one of the best-preserved Neolithic tombs in Britain has revealed that most of the people buried there were from five continuous generations of a single extended family.

By analyzing DNA extracted from the bones and teeth of 35 individuals entombed at Hazleton North long cairn in the Cotswolds-Severn region, the research team was able to detect that 27 of them were close biological relatives. The group lived approximately 5700 years ago–around 3700-3600 BC–around 100 years after farming had been introduced to Britain.

Hazleton Long Barrow. Photo courtesy of Corinium Museum, copyright Cotswold District Council.

The study “A high-resolution picture of kinship practices in an Early Neolithic tomb,” which is published in Nature, is the first of its kind to reveal in such detail how prehistoric families were structured, and the international team of archaeologists and geneticists say that the results provide new insights into kinship and burial practices in Neolithic times.

Excellent DNA preservation

“The excellent DNA preservation at the tomb and the use of the latest technologies in ancient DNA recovery and analysis allowed us to uncover the oldest family tree ever reconstructed and analyze it to understand something profound about the social structure of these ancient groups,” said Iñigo Olalde of the University of the Basque Country and Ikerbasque, the lead geneticist for the study and co-first author.

The research team–which included archaeologists from Newcastle University (U.K.), and geneticists from the University of the Basque Country, University of Vienna, and Harvard University–show that most of those buried in the tomb were descended from four women who had all had children with the same man.

“This study gives us an unprecedented insight into kinship in a Neolithic community. The tomb at Hazleton North has two separate chambered areas, one accessed via a northern entrance and the other from a southern entrance, and just one extraordinary finding is that initially each of the two halves of the tomb were used to place the remains of the dead from one of two branches of the same family. This is of wider importance because it suggests that the architectural layout of other Neolithic tombs might tell us about how kinship operated at those tombs,” said Dr. Chris Fowler of Newcastle University, the first author and lead archaeologist of the study.

Hazleton family tree Neolithic
Hazleton family tree. Image courtesy of Newcastle University/Fowler, Olalde et al.

Absence of adult daughters

The cairn at Hazleton North included two L-shaped chambered areas that were located north and south of the main ‘spine’ of the linear structure. After they had died, individuals were buried inside these two chambered areas and the research findings indicate that men were generally buried with their father and brothers, suggesting that descent was patrilineal with later generations buried at the tomb connected to the first generation entirely through male relatives.

While two of the daughters of the lineage who died in childhood were buried in the tomb, the complete absence of adult daughters suggests that their remains were placed either in the tombs of male partners with whom they had children or elsewhere.

Although the right to use the tomb ran through patrilineal ties, the choice of whether individuals were buried in the north or south chambered area initially depended on the first-generation woman from whom they were descended, suggesting that these first-generation women were socially significant in the memories of this community.

“This study reflects what I think is the future of ancient DNA: one in which archaeologists are able to apply ancient DNA analysis at sufficiently high resolution to address the questions that truly matter to archaeologists,” said David Reich, Harvard University, whose laboratory led the ancient DNA generation.

According to the study, eight entombed individuals were not close biological relatives of the main lineage, raising the possibility that kinship also encompassed social bonds independent of biological relatedness.

The project was an international collaboration between archaeologists from the Universities of Newcastle, York, Exeter, and Central Lancashire, and geneticists at the University of Vienna, University of the Basque Country, and Harvard University. Corinium Museum, Cirencester, provided permission to sample the remains in their collection.

“It was difficult to imagine just a few years ago that we would ever know about Neolithic kinship structures. But this is just the beginning and no doubt there is a lot more to be discovered from other sites in Britain, Atlantic France, and other regions,” said Ron Pinhasi, of the University of Vienna.

Hazleton plan interior. Image courtesy of Fowler, Olalde et al. after Saville 1990, by permission of Historic England.

The authors of the study are Fowler, Olalde, Vicki Cummings, Ian Armit, Lindsey Büster, Sarah Cuthbert, Nadin Rohland, Olivia Cheronet, Pinhasi, and Reich.

The work received primary funding from a Ramón y Cajal grant from the Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación of the Spanish Government (RYC2019-027909-I), Ikerbasque – Basque Foundation of Science, the US National Institutes of Health (grant GM100233), the John Templeton Foundation (grant 61220), a private gift from Jean-François Clin, the Allen Discovery Center program, a Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group advised program of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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