DNA From Ancient Tomb In Ireland Reveals An Incestuous Ruling Elite

Newgrange, the giant Neolithic monument of Ireland, wakes up on a misty morning. Ken Williams/shadowsandstone.com

An ancient tomb has revealed that Neolithic Ireland was once home to an all-powerful group of social elites. Like many other examples of ruling dynasties throughout history, it was also riddled with incest. 

Archaeologists and geneticists from Trinity College Dublin recently studied the remains of a human buried in the heart of Newgrange, a 5,200-year-old monument in the rolling green lands of County Meath, Ireland. Reported in the journal Nature, genome analysis revealed that the body belonged to a man whose parents were very closely related, most likely brother and sister.

"I'd never seen anything like it," Dr Lara Cassidy, first author of the paper from the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin, said in a statement. "We all inherit two copies of the genome, one from our mother and one from our father; well, this individual's copies were extremely similar, a tell-tale sign of close inbreeding. In fact, our analyses allowed us to confirm that his parents were first-degree relatives." 

The middle-aged man was buried around 3,200 BCE, a time when agriculture had supplanted the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle in this part of the world. He was buried in one of the chambers found in Newgrange, a vast circular mound with an inner stone passageway. Like some other Neolithic sites, the structure was built with astronomy in mind; on the morning of the Winter Solstice, the “shortest day” of the year, the rising Sun shines directly down the long central passage, illuminating the inner chamber.
A map of Newgrange used in the research. Lara M Cassidy et al/Nature 2020 

Anyone buried in such an elaborate setting must have held an extremely high social status. The researchers say that the new discovery of incestual relationships among the people buried here also suggests the presence of an extraordinarily powerful ruling dynasty. Just like the marrying cousins of European royal families, the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, or the “god-kings” of Inca Peru, ruling elites have often used incestuous unions as a means to secure the dynastic bloodline.

"Here the auspicious location of the male skeletal remains is matched by the unprecedented nature of his ancient genome," explained Dan Bradley, study author and professor of Population Genetics at Trinity. "The prestige of the burial makes this very likely a socially sanctioned union and speaks of a hierarchy so extreme that the only partners worthy of the elite were family members."

"This would be the earliest example of an elite that practiced dynastic incest," added Dr Cassidy, speaking to IFLScience. "DNA allows us to go beyond the written record." 

It also appears that this Neolithic ruler was related to other high-ranking elites found across the area. The team also found genetic links between the person buried in Newgrange and other prehistoric people found buried in the mega-cemeteries of Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in County Sligo, as well as individuals buried 150 kilometers (93 miles) away at Brú na Bóinne and the Millin Bay monument.

"It seems what we have here is a powerful extended kin-group, who had access to elite burial sites in many regions of the island for at least half a millennium," added Dr Cassidy.

Perhaps most remarkably of all, the genetic evidence found within the burial chambers of Newgrange also seems to resonate with a local myth told for centuries. According to the tale, a builder-king restarted the daily solar cycle by sleeping with his sister. While the story is first documented in the 11th century CE, it most likely existed through oral retellings long before this.

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