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Earliest family reportedly unearthed

Nov. 17, 2008
Courtesy University of Bristol
and World Science staff

Four an­cient skele­tons un­earthed in Ger­ma­ny in 2005 ap­pear to be the ear­li­est fam­i­ly in the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal rec­ord, re­search­ers say.

The sci­en­tists dat­ed re­mains from four mul­ti­ple buri­als dis­cov­ered in Ger­ma­ny in 2005. The 4,600-year-old gra­ves con­tained groups of adults and chil­dren bur­ied fac­ing each oth­er—an un­usu­al prac­tice in the late Stone Age cul­ture of their time.

Scientists describe this as a group bur­ial of a 4,600-year-old nu­c­lear family, with the child­ren (a boy of 8-9 and a boy of 5-4 years) bur­ied fac­ing their par­ents. (Credit: Haak et al.)


One grave con­tained an adult coup­le and two chil­dren, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. Us­ing DNA an­al­y­sis, they found that the group con­sisted of a moth­er, fa­ther and their two sons aged 8 to 9 and 4 to 5 years.

“We have es­tab­lished the pres­ence of the clas­sic nu­clear family in a pre­his­tor­ic con­text in Cen­tral Eu­rope—to our knowl­edge the old­est au­then­tic mo­lec­u­lar ge­net­ic ev­i­dence so far. Their un­ity in death sug­gests a un­ity in life,” said Wolf­gang Haak of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Ad­e­laide, Aus­tral­ia, lead au­thor of a new pa­per de­scrib­ing the finds. 

“How­ever, this does not es­tab­lish the el­e­ment­al family to be a un­iver­sal mod­el or the most an­cient in­sti­tu­tion of hu­man com­mun­i­ties.”

The research appears in this week’s early on­line is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Acad­e­my of Sci­ences.

The buri­als at Eu­lau, Ger­ma­ny were un­usu­al for the great care tak­en in the treat­ment of the dead, ac­cord­ing to the re­search group. The re­mains of thir­teen peo­ple were found in to­tal, all of whom had been in­terred si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly.

The ar­range­ment of the dead seemed to mir­ror their rela­t­ions in life, the sci­en­tists added. Sev­er­al pairs of in­di­vid­u­als were bur­ied face-to-face with arms and hands in­ter­linked in many cases. All the buri­als con­tained chil­dren rang­ing from new­borns up to 10 years of age and adults of around 30 years or old­er; there were no ado­les­cents or young adults.

Many showed in­ju­ries in­di­cat­ing they were vic­tims of a vi­o­lent raid, ac­cord­ing to the re­search group. One fe­male had a stone pro­jec­tile point em­bed­ded in a ver­te­bra, an­oth­er had skull frac­tures and sev­er­al bod­ies had what sci­en­tists de­scribed as “de­fense in­ju­ries” to the fore­arms and hands. 

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors said they al­so were able to shed light on the peo­ple’s so­cial or­ga­nisa­t­ion us­ing stron­ti­um iso­tope anal­y­sis, which in­volves meas­ur­ing the quanti­ties of dif­fer­ent vari­ants of a chem­i­cal el­e­ment found in the teeth.

This gives “an in­dica­t­ion of where these peo­ple spent their child­hood. Stron­ti­um from the food you eat is in­cor­po­rat­ed in­to your teeth as they grow. We can re­late the pro­por­tion of dif­fer­ent stron­ti­um iso­topes [var­i­ants] back to re­gions with dif­fer­ent geolo­gy,” said Hylke de Jong, a PhD stu­dent work­ing on the Eu­lau gra­ves at the Uni­ver­s­ity of Bris­tol, U.K.

“The stron­ti­um anal­y­sis showed that the fe­males spent their child­hood in a dif­fer­ent re­gion from the males and chil­dren. This is an in­dica­t­ion of ex­og­a­my [mar­ry­ing out] and pat­ri­lo­cal­ity [the fe­males mov­ing to the loca­t­ion of the ma­les],” said Al­is­tair Pike, head of ar­chae­o­lo­gy at the Uni­ver­s­ity of Bris­tol and co-director of the proj­ect. “Such tra­di­tions would have been im­por­tant to avoid in­breed­ing and to forge kin­ship net­works with oth­er com­mun­i­ties.”

The buri­als have been put on per­ma­nent dis­play at the Lan­desmu­seum Sachsen-Anhalt in Ger­ma­ny.


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Four ancient skeletons unearthed in Germany in 2005 appear to be the earliest “nuclear family” in the archaeological record, researchers say. The scientists dated remains from four multiple burials discovered in Germany in 2005. The 4,600-year-old graves contained groups of adults and children buried facing each other—an unusual practice in late Stone Age culture. One grave was found to contain a female and male adult and two children, the investigators said. Using DNA analysis, the researchers established that the group consisted of a mother, father and their two sons aged 8 to 9 and 4 to 5 years. “We have established the presence of the classic nuclear family in a prehistoric context in Central Europe – to our knowledge the oldest authentic molecular genetic evidence so far. Their unity in death suggests a unity in life,” said Wolfgang Haak of the University of Adelaide, Australia, lead author of a paper describing the finds in this week’s early online issue of the research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “However, this does not establish the elemental family to be a universal model or the most ancient institution of human communities.” The burials at Eulau, Germany were unusual for the great care taken in the treatment of the dead, according to the research group. The remains of thirteen people were found in total, all of whom had been interred simultaneously. The arrangement of the dead seemed to mirror their relations in life, the scientists added. Several pairs of individuals were buried face-to-face with arms and hands interlinked in many cases. All the burials contained children ranging from newborns up to 10 years of age and adults of around 30 years or older; there were no adolescents or young adults. Many showed injuries indicating they were victims of a violent raid, according to the research group. One female had a stone projectile point embedded in a vertebra, another had skull fractures and several bodies had what scientists described as “defense injuries” to the forearms and hands. In an article published this week in the research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers reconstructed the “Stone Age tragedy” using genetic and chemical techniques, physical anthropology and archaeology. The investigators said they also were able to shed light on the people’s social organisation using strontium isotope analysis, which involves measuring the quantities of different variants of a chemical element found in the teeth. This gives “an indication of where these people spent their childhood. Strontium from the food you eat is incorporated into your teeth as they grow. We can relate the proportion of different strontium isotopes back to regions with different geology,” said Hylke de Jong, a PhD student working on the Eulau graves at the University of Bristol, U.K. “The strontium analysis showed that the females spent their childhood in a different region from the males and children. This is an indication of exogamy [marrying out] and patrilocality [the females moving to the location of the males],” said Alistair Pike, head of archaeology at the University of Bristol and co-director of the project. “Such traditions would have been important to avoid inbreeding and to forge kinship networks with other communities.” The burials described are on permanent display at the Landesmuseum Sachsen-Anhalt in Germany.