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Explained: Significance of ‘world’s oldest family tree’ put together from remains in 5700-year-old UK tomb

The authors say that the study provides new insights into burial and kinship practices prevalent in the Neolithic times. 

UK tombImage showing what the exterior of the cairn at Hazleton North may have looked like. Courtesy of Corinium Museum (Copyright Cotswold District Council)

By conducting archaeological and genetic analysis of the remains of 35 individuals who lived about 5,700 years ago (the remains have been found in a place where farming was first introduced in Britain about a century ago), a team of international scientists has presented what is being called the “world’s oldest family tree”.

Their study, which was published in the Nature journal this week, claims to be the first of its kind to reveal in detail how prehistoric (the period before written records existed) families were structured. The authors say that the study provides new insights into burial and kinship practices prevalent in the Neolithic times.

Archaeologist Peter Bogucki has written in the Encyclopaedia of Archaeology that during the Neolithic period, prehistoric societies of Europe started to appear familiar to the modern observer and that during this time people ceased to be hunter-gatherers.

What were the key findings of the study?

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The team of scientists analysed DNA extracted from the bones and teeth of 35 individuals who were entombed at the Hazelton North cairn in the Cotswolds-Severn region of Britain. The researchers were able to detect that 27 of these individuals were close biological relatives.

The presence of the remaining eight, who could not be determined to be close relatives, suggests that biological relatedness was perhaps not the only criterion for inclusion into the tomb.

Why is it significant?

Significantly, the study says that most of the people buried in the tomb were descended from four women who had children with the same man.

When these people died, they were buried inside two chambered areas (north and south) of the cairn (a kind of a memorial). The research suggests that while men were buried with their father or brothers (indicating that descent was patrilineal), there were no adult daughters present. Their absence suggests that they were buried elsewhere possibly with their male partners who they had children with.

Family Tree The analysis revealed five continuous generations of a single extended family. (Credit Newcastle University/Fowler, Olalde et al.)

Further, while the right to use the tomb for burial was determined through the patrilineal ties, the decision to bury the individuals in either the north or the south chamber initially depended on the first-generation woman from who they had descended, “suggesting that these first-generation women were socially significant in the memories of this community,” a press release issued by Newcastle University notes.

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Iñigo Olalde of the University of the Basque Country and Ikerbasque, who is the lead geneticist for the study and co-first author, was quoted as saying in the release, “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 analyse it to understand something profound about the social structure of these ancient groups.”

First published on: 25-12-2021 at 18:07 IST
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