In one of the mythical sequences of the film Raiders of the lost ark, an Indiana Jones student closes her eyes slowly and her eyelids can read “I love you”, while the archaeologist played by Harrison Ford explains the Neolithic funerary monuments on the blackboard. In that fleeting scene, Indiana Jones mentions Hazleton, a small English town in which in 1980 – the year of filming – a 5,700-year-old burial mound was being excavated with the remains of four dozen human beings. An analysis of the DNA of those bones has now made it possible to understand who those people were. It is an unprecedented look at prehistoric life.
The study reveals that at least 27 of the 35 individuals analyzed in the mass grave were direct relatives. In the words of the geneticist Íñigo Olalde, co-author of the work, it is “the oldest family ever recovered, in addition to the largest described in prehistory.” The researchers draw a family tree with a man, four women and the offspring that the five had, until they reach their great-great-grandchildren. “We do not know if this was polygamy or serial monogamy: if the man reproduced with the four women at the same time or if every time a woman died he began with another”, explains Olalde, from the University of the Basque Country.
The funerary monument, a giant mound of stones called North Hazleton, was on farmland and was emptied by archaeologists four decades ago to prevent it from being razed by plowshares. In the 19th century, some of its large rocks were used to build roads and build walls on farms in the region. There’s nothing left. The tomb was organized around the founding man and the four women with whom he had children. There are no adult daughters, suggesting that their bodies were deposited in other graves, perhaps alongside men from other groups. Some 300 similar elongated burial mounds have been found in Britain.
Olalde points out that the North Hazleton monument was divided into two chambers and that each of them was reserved for two of the first women and their offspring. “These women were also important, because after several generations it was still remembered which one you descended from and you were buried on one side or the other depending on that,” underlines the geneticist, first signatory of the study together with archaeologist Chris Fowler, from the University from Newcastle.
The results show that the great North Hazleton family was descended from migrants from continental Europe who arrived just a century earlier on the island of Great Britain, introducing cattle ranching, the cultivation of cereals and the construction of megalithic monuments. “They do not descend from the groups of hunters and gatherers that already existed in Great Britain,” emphasizes Olalde, who places the probable origin of the lineage in what is now France.
The analysis shows that the women who had children with the men of the clan also had them with other individuals outside the group. Investigators have found three alleged stepchildren in the grave, perhaps the result of their previous relationships and adopted by the North Hazleton family, the authors hypothesize. Olalde recalls that “at that time it was very easy to die.” His study of the bones shows fractures, dental abscesses, arthritis, joint inflammation from bacterial infections, and signs of nutritional deficiency. “There are signs of a lot of diseases. They had a totally miserable life by our standards. It is possible that their partners died and had others later, “says Olalde. His work is published this Wednesday in the magazine Nature.
Scientists have not found the family ties of eight of the 35 people analyzed, although they do not rule out that it is due to lack of samples. “The entire skeleton of the founding man was not preserved, only a loose tooth was found,” explains the Spanish geneticist. For example, there are three women who were probably the wives of some of the men of the clan, but no descendants have been found that confirm that they were reproductive pairs. Perhaps they had daughters and these were deposited in the tomb of their new families.
In 2019, Mexican geneticist Federico Sánchez Quinto led a genetic study of the remains of 24 people found in five European megalithic graves, revealing a handful of family connections. The researcher explains that it was previously thought that the first patriarchal hierarchical societies and social inequality arose in Europe and Western Asia during the Bronze Age. “This new work and ours suggest that hierarchical patriarchal societies may have been present since the Neolithic in western Eurasia, some 1,000 or 1,500 years earlier than previously expected,” explains Sánchez Quinto, from the National Institute of Genomic Medicine of Mexico.
“The dimensions and majestic architecture of the Neolithic megalithic tombs – elongated mounds, dolmens, corridor graves – and the valuable artifacts found in them, suggest that the individuals buried under this funerary tradition belonged to a select social group”, adds the Mexican geneticist. In his opinion, the new results, added to those obtained by his team in 2019, suggest that “megalithic tombs in Ireland, England and Sweden could have been the resting place of hierarchical patriarchal societies.”
Chemist Tamsin O’Connell, head of the Department of Archeology at the University of Cambridge, appreciates the “robustness” of the new study, but misses further reflection on the implications of these results beyond the Hazleton North family. O’Connell revealed 15 years ago the very meat-rich diet of these people, by analyzing the chemical compounds in their bones. In the place, remains of cows, pigs, sheep and deer were found. “They were well fed and showed levels of illness and stress similar to those of other similar populations,” he says.
The Cambridge researcher questions the hypothesis that the men of the clan adopted other people’s children. “Another explanation could be the disorder of human relationships,” says O’Connell. Some modern studies estimate that between 2% and 4% of people are daughters of a father who is not the one they believe, according to chemistry. “This could also have happened in the past,” he warns. Íñigo Olalde himself recognizes that the supposed adopted children of the Northern Hazleton clan could be the result of infidelities. “It is an option, but we believe that this is not the case because we see three cases, that is why we postulate that those men were aware that they were the children of other men,” argues Olalde.
Behind the new study is also David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard University (USA) who has broken into the study of prehistory and at times has roused his more traditional colleagues with revolutionary conclusions, such as the enigmatic substitution of all the men of the Iberian Peninsula about 4,000 years ago, after the arrival of descendant groups of shepherds from the European steppes. “We have access to the rich vein of ancient DNA, which has become a more definitive source of information on ancient population movements than the traditional tools of archeology and linguistics,” argued Reich in his book Who we are and how we got here (published by Antoni Bosch, 2019).
The researcher at the Cambridge Department of Archeology is more skeptical about the dimension of the ancient DNA revolution. “Geneticists working in archaeological studies often have a hard time recognizing that their results are yet another line of data in a complex multi-layered set of tests. They don’t offer the only answer, “says Tamsin O’Connell. It is the first time that ancient DNA analysis has been applied to a large family from prehistory. The landing of genetics has just begun.