Neolithic Grave indicates “Nuclear Family” who met a Violent Death

Analysis of the human remains found buried together indicate that our Stone Age ancestors lived in similar family groups as we do.  Genetic study of four bodies found in a 4,600-year old grave near Eulau in Germany shows that four unfortunate victims of a tribal raid were all related to each other and that they were buried together in an intimate arrangement, together in one another’s arms.

This burial site has been studied over the last few years and has yielded remarkable insights into the lives of our ancestors as they moved from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence into a more sedentary one.  Earlier research indicated that social groups were built around the menfolk who raided other tribes and stole women.

To read an earlier related article: Evidence of Neolithic Violence – Fighting over the Girls

The Neolithic remains, which demonstrate evidence of a genetic relationship belong to a man aged between 40 and 60, a woman aged between 35 and 50, and boys aged 4 to 5 and 8 to 9 years of age.  Together they provide the earliest firm evidence for the existence of nuclear family units.

Scientists know that burials were extremely ritualistic, a trait that has remained with us, adults, for example were buried in a particular way with females laid out on one side of their body and males on the opposite side in most ancient burials found in this part of central Europe dating from Neolithic Times.

The Neolithic “Family”

Picture Credit: National Academy of Sciences

The picture shows the layout of the skeletons within one of the burial pits. The bodies have been positioned carefully in a close and intimate position, the illustration at the top shows more detail.

The whole site paints a macabre scene, a number of bodies have been uncovered, most showing signs of violent death and defensive wounds such as broken wrists and fingers as they tried to protect themselves from blows.

The majority of the bodies in the graves were children or women, and only one of the skeletons belonged to a man in his prime, aged between 25 and 40.  It is likely that these people were murdered in a raid by a rival tribe, out to steal young women, before the survivors returned to bury their dead.

Many anthropologists have assumed, based on observations of sometimes polygamous modern-day hunter-gatherers, that the basic social unit of early humans was the band or tribe rather than the family.  Figuring out when the nuclear family became central to human social organisation has been difficult.  Archaeologists have dug up thousands of skeletons at early farming sites across the Near East and Europe, and many of them are buried together in ways that might suggest family ties.  For example, at the 9500-year-old early farming site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, excavators have uncovered two skulls with their foreheads touching and the skull of a man cradled in the arms of a woman.  But without DNA evidence, researchers are reluctant to ascribe modern-day interpretations to ancient burials.

Now, a team led by Wolfgang Haak, a geneticist at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA in Adelaide, claims to have worked out some family relationships in a remarkable series of burials uncovered in central Germany in 2005.  At the early farming site of Eulau, German archaeologists found four graves containing 13 individuals who had apparently met a violent death.  Working with the German team, Haak and colleagues were able to extract enough mitochondrial and nuclear DNA from the skeletons in one of the graves to conclude that the two adults were the parents of the two boys.  In a second, nearby grave, the team concluded that the bodies of three children were probably brothers and sisters, although the adult female found with them was not their mother. Rather, the researchers suggest, she might have been an aunt or a step-mother, perhaps some other close relative.

Commenting on the research, published in the scientific journal “The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”,  Haak and his co-workers state that:

“We have established the presence of the classic nuclear family in a prehistoric context”.

In further analysis, the team studied the strontium isotope content of a number of the skeletons’ teeth, which varies according to the chemistry of the soil where an individual spends his or her childhood. The researchers found that the children and the adult men grew up in the Eulau area of Germany, whereas the adult women came from at least 35 miles away; an indication that nuclear families in this region were organised around local men who mated with women from outside their own community.

“This is a great piece of work,” commented Alexander Bentley, an anthropologist at Durham University. Bentley adds that the new findings, including the signs of violence on the skeletons, such as multiple skull fractures, a flint arrow head lodged in spine of one of the females and defensive marks on the hands and arms, are consistent with other archaeological evidence from Central Europe that men raided outside communities and captured their women.

Other archaeologists argue that the evidence is inconclusive and the author’s claims regarding the biological relationship between the skeletons is stretching matters a little.  The genetic markers the team used are “very widespread in Europe”, according to one source meaning that they cannot be used to work out exact family relations without a broader study of prehistoric skeletons from the region.

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