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Archaeologists Create Largest Family Tree of Neolithic People

Neolithic Family Tree Reconstructed from Ancient DNA Sheds Light on Ancestral Connections and Community Bonds.
Neolithic Family Tree Produced From Ancient DNA Sheds Light on Ancestral Connections and Community Bonds. Credit: stevekeiretsu / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

French archaeologists have used ancient DNA to create large family trees from the distant past. These family trees show how people were related over many generations and comprise the most expansive record of family history to ever exist.

The family trees are of individuals from a place called Gurgy in France. It is a spot in the northern part of the country near Paris. Around 6,700 years ago, people used this place as a special area for burying their dead.

Experts began digging there in the mid-2000s. However, now, with better ways to get and study old DNA, they went back to look at the genes of 94 out of the 128 people whose bones they found at Gurgy. These were of both young and old people. The findings were shared on July 26th in the science journal Nature.

Appearance of ancient communities

Around twelve thousand years ago, ancient communities began appearing in the Near East. This area covers West Asia, Southeastern Europe, and North Africa. At that time, much of the human population shifted from hunting and gathering to farming.

This switch in their lifestyle allowed them to build permanent homes and live together in groups for many generations. It led to the large burial area referenced herein.

“The size of a family tree that huge for that time period” was astonishing, said Maïté Rivollat, who is in charge of the study. She works as a postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University in Belgium.

The place where they dug up these bones was actually a simple burial area. There were no special structures or valuable items buried with the bodies. According to Rivollat, many of the bones were not in very good condition. They had decayed and worn away over time.

However, even with these challenges, Rivollat explained that the bones were still in good enough shape to get some DNA from them. They managed to extract DNA from 94 of the people whose remains they found.

Founding father of the family

The experts made a fascinating discovery about this family. They found out that all the people in this family came from a single man, sort of like a “founding father.”

His skeleton was very special. It was buried in a place they didn’t know about first, but then it was moved and placed near his family in Gurgy, as mentioned in a statement. Experts also found the remains of a woman next to him, but they couldn’t get any DNA from her.

To figure this out, researchers looked at two types of DNA: mitochondrial DNA, which comes from the mother’s side, and Y-chromosome DNA, which comes from the father’s side. They also looked at how old each person was when they died and if they were male or female based on their genes.

With all of this information, they created two family trees. The first tree showed 64 people across seven generations, which is the biggest one ever made. The second tree had 12 people from five generations, according to the study.

The emergence of a clear pattern

The different generations were connected through the male side of the family. The men in the family mostly stayed in the same community where they were born. However, the women had a different story. They seemed to come from outside of the community and were buried here.

Rivollat mentioned, “The women who were buried there weren’t related and came from somewhere else.” She also pointed out that they noticed something interesting.

People in this community didn’t marry close relatives, known as inbreeding. This was likely because the women in the family moved from one place to another, preventing close relatives from marrying each other.

There was another fascinating thing about this community. They didn’t have half-brothers or half-sisters. Sons and daughters came from the same parents.

This suggests that the family members weren’t involved in multiple marriages at the same time, but rather they were committed to one partner, as stated.

“It became apparent that the descendants knew who was buried there,” Rivollat shared. “The closer they were buried together, the closer they were related.”

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