Research highlight

Anthropology: Family matters in an Early Neolithic tomb

Nature

December 23, 2021

A detailed genetic analysis of 35 individuals interred in a Neolithic tomb in Gloucestershire, England about 5,700 years ago offers new insights into the kinship rules that governed this ancient society. The study, published this week in Nature, hints at a possibly polygamous society in which adoption may have occurred, and paternal and maternal lines of descent were both important.

The individuals were all entombed in Hazelton North, an Early Neolithic long cairn containing two opposed, L-shaped chambers, dubbed ‘north’ and ‘south’. Combining archaeological analyses with genome-wide data extracted from ancient DNA, David Reich and colleagues found that 27 of the individuals belonged to the same family; a five-generation lineage descended from one male and four females.

Fifteen of the individuals are connected via the male line, which suggests a paternal influence, while the non-random positioning of the mothers’ descendants indicates that the maternal line was also important. Descendants from two of the females were interred in the southern chambers, whilst descendants from the other two females were interred in the northern chambers. This finding suggests that maternal sub-lineages were grouped into branches whose distinctiveness was recognised during the tomb’s construction.

The team also identified four males whose mothers were part of the lineage, but whose fathers were not. This finding may indicate that adoptive kinship might have been as important as biological kinship. Eight individuals who were not close biological relatives of the main lineage were also present in the tomb, and although their significance is uncertain, they highlight the possibility that non-biological kinship was also important to this community.

doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-04241-4

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