In the mid-2000s, archaeologists excavating a burial ground in France uncovered a 6,500-year-old mystery. Among the remains of more than 120 individuals, one grave stood out. It contained an almost complete female skeleton, along with several miscellaneous bones that appeared to have been excavated and moved from another grave.
Ancient DNA from the mysterious displaced remains now shows they belonged to the male ancestor of dozens of other people buried nearby. The insight comes from a study that used ancient genomics to create the largest-ever genealogy of a prehistoric family, providing a snapshot of life in an early farming community. Study was published July 26 in Nature.
Seven generations of a prehistoric family mapped by ancient DNA
Western Europe is dotted with monuments that served as burial grounds for high-ranking individuals from a period roughly 7,000 to 4,000 years ago, called the Neolithic. Dozens of burials at Gurgy ‘Les Noisats’, located about 150 kilometers southeast of Paris, lack any signs of such monuments or rich grave goods, suggesting they could belong to commoners, says study co-author Wolfgang Haak, an archaeogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
His team analyzed the genomes of 94 of the 128 individuals recovered from the site and used the data to determine how they were related. Scientists expected some individuals to be related, based on the composition of other Neolithic sites.
But they were amazed to find that about two-thirds belonged to a single family tree that spanned seven generations. The closer people were buried, the closer they were related. the pinnacle of genealogy is the man from the mysterious grave. The jumble of bones was unique to the site, yet no graves or other evidence signaled its location or why its remains were exhumed, says study co-author Maïté Rivollat, an archaeologist at Ghent University in Belgium.
Scientists have so far been unable to obtain DNA from the woman buried next to him. If she is like the other adult women of this site most of them were not closely related to anyone she may have joined a family from another community. This points to a social structure similar to that uncovered at some other prehistoric sites, where male offspring tended to stick around while females migrated elsewhere.
Prehistoric social scene
The giant family tree revealed other previously hidden aspects of Neolithic life. All siblings had the same mother and father, with no half-siblings present. This suggests that no individual had multiple partners. “Here, it’s pretty simple and pretty monogamous,” says Haak. “This is the standard life of common people and non-elite?”
This contrasts with a later Neolithic burial in the United Kingdom, Hazleton North, where researchers identified 2 males who procreated with four females. Researchers need to build family trees from other ancient burials to figure out what’s typical, says Chris Fowler, an archaeologist at the University of Newcastle in the UK who was part of the study.
Kendra Sirak, an ancient DNA specialist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts says “This type of work really breathes new life into our understanding of ancient peoples I’m curious about the man at the root of the family tree. I would like to know why this person is so important”.
Edited by: Dr. Brijendra Kumar Mishra (PhD in Geology)