Family ties

Look: Ancient family tree reveals 2 surprising traits of Stone Age society

Families have changed a lot since then — and in some ways, they haven’t.

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What makes a family a family?

For some, it’s all about biology.

But for others, family is more than just shared DNA.

Societies from the early Stone Age may have opted for a broader definition of family ties.

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Researchers writing in the journal Nature chronicled the family tree of 35 individuals who lived 5,700 years ago.

Reich et al. Nature, 2021

They were buried at Hazleton North, an elongated tomb in modern-day England.

It contains two L-shaped corridors, with some members buried on the north side and others on the south.

Reich et al. Nature, 2021

27 of the individuals in the tomb were from the same genetic line spanning 5 generations.

But they didn’t all have the same parents.

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The first generation began with four females and one male, suggesting that the society was polygamous.

Two of the original mothers were buried in the north chamber, while two were buried in the south.

Newcastle University

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And there were four male members of the family that only had their mothers buried in the tomb.

The remaining eight individuals did not have either of their parents nearby.

Genetic lines seemed to determine where different family members were buried in the tomb.

But the authors hypothesize that there may have been an aspect of kinship extended to the unrelated members as well.

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“Some or all of these eight may have been considered kin by association or co-residence, or by adoption, raising the possibility of a meaningful role for completely non-biological kinship within the community.”

— Reich et al., study authors

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However, it doesn’t definitively mean that they had a family-like relationship.

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For example, the researchers say that three of the eight were female, and could have been the mates of male members who did not reproduce.

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But distant and non-relatives have been found in other tombs from the Stone Age, raising the question of what roles they played in society.

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“Future research ... in additional tombs both in a Neolithic context in northern Europe and in other cultural contexts has the potential to test alternative theories about kinship in past societies.”

— Reich et al., study authors