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Neolithic tomb reveals ancient burial practices

A new study published in the journal Nature has described kinship practices from the Early Neolithic Britain, as revealed through the analysis of DNA found in one of the best-preserved Neolithic tombs in Britain, located at the Hazleton North long cairn in the Cotswolds-Severn region. This is the first study to explore in such detail how prehistoric families were structured and to provide insight into kinship and burial practices in Neolithic times.

By analyzing DNA extracted from the bones and teeth of 35 individuals entombed at the Hazleton North cairn, scientists found that 27 of them were close biological relatives. The group lived approximately 5,700 years ago, about 100 years after farming practices were introduced in Britain. Most of those buried there were descended from four women who all had children with the same male. 

“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 study lead geneticist Iñigo Olalde of the University of the Basque Country.

The researchers discovered that men were generally buried together with their father and brothers, indicating that descent was patrilinear. The complete absence of adult daughters from the tomb suggests that they may have been placed in the tombs of male partners with whom they had children. 

However, the choice of whether individuals were buried in the northern or southern room of the two-chambered tomb seemed to have initially depended on the first-generation woman from whom they were descended, suggesting that such women were highly significant in the collective memory of this community.

There are also indications that “stepsons” (males whose mother but not biological father was buried in the tomb) were adopted into the lineage. Moreover, since there was no evidence that eight individuals were biological relatives of those in the family tree, biological relativeness may not have been the only criterion for inclusion.

 “It was difficult to imagine just a few years ago that we would ever know about Neolithic kinship structures,” said study co-author Ron Pinhasi, an expert in Biological Anthropology at the University of Vienna. “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.”

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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