Thursday, June 18, 2020

A Royal Elite in Neolithic Ireland?

The results have just been published of DNA studies on bones from Neolithic tombs in Ireland, dating to between 4,000 and 2,500 BC. The burial that is getting the most attention was buried in the heart of Newgrange, the largest Neolithic tomb in Britain, around 3.200 BC. Science News:
A man buried in a huge, roughly 5,200-year-old Irish stone tomb was the product of incest, a new study finds.

DNA extracted from the ancient man’s remains displays an unusually large number of identical versions of the same genes. That pattern indicates that his parents were either a brother and sister or a parent and child, a team led by geneticists Lara Cassidy and Daniel Bradley of Trinity College Dublin reports June 17 in Nature.

That new DNA discovery combined with the monumental tomb suggests that ruling families who wielded enough power to direct big building projects emerged among some early European farming communities, the researchers contend.
This is quite fascinating. It's hard for Americans to understand how large these Neolithic tombs and temples loom in the historical imaginations of many people in Ireland and Britain. There has been an industry of study and speculation about the tombs and the people who built them for 350 years. Every sort of theory has been proposed, from purely egalitarian societies to rule by priest kings to aliens.

A single case of an incestuously bred leader does not prove anything, but it does suggest a hereditary elite with religious associations. This could be our first bona fide Neolithic priest king.

Then again, it could just be a priest. In ancient Egypt and among the Inca it was the rulers who went in for incest, but among some Polynesian and African societies the practice was limited to priestly orders which did not have great political power. Other then the tombs themselves, there is not much sign of a ruling elite in Neolithic Ireland: no houses bigger than others, not much in the way of luxury goods. The tombs themselves were communal affairs within which many people were buried, or in some cases stashed until they had moldered to bones before being taken somewhere else.

But then again maybe the tombs were so important to these people that being buried in the core chamber was all the sign of status anyone needed.

Anyway this is fascinating, and another way that the study of ancient DNA has shed new light on questions that have been argued over for centuries.

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