Analysis of Ancient DNA Reveals the World’s Oldest Family Tree

An analysis of DNA from a 5,700-year-old tomb has revealed the world’s oldest family tree, shedding “extraordinary” light on the importance of family and descent among people who were some of Britain’s first farmers.

Researchers extracted DNA from the bones and teeth of 35 individuals buried at Hazleton North long cairn in the Cotswolds-Severn region, England. They found that 27 of them were close biological relatives and were from five continuous generations of a single extended family.

Published in Nature, it is the first study to reveal in such detail how prehistoric families were structured, and the international team of archaeologists and geneticists say that the results provide new insights into kinship and burial practices in Neolithic times.

The research team — which included archaeologists from Newcastle University, UK, and geneticists from the University of the Basque Country, University of Vienna and Harvard University — show that most of those buried in the tomb were descended from four women who had all had children with the same man.

The prehistoric group of people in question lived around 3700–3600BC and were some of Britain’s first farmers, with the tomb constructed about 100 years after cattle and cereal cultivation had been introduced from continental Europe. It would be another 700 years before construction started on the most famous neolithic legacy, Stonehenge.

Archaeologists know that the people moved around the landscape and were probably herding animals as they did so. They consumed dairy products and had a protein-rich diet and they made pots for storing and cooking food. The latest research shows that family ties also mattered to them.

Dr Chris Fowler of Newcastle University, the first author and lead archaeologist of the study, said: “This study gives us an unprecedented insight into kinship in a Neolithic community. The tomb at Hazleton North has two separate chambered areas, one accessed via a northern entrance and the other from a southern entrance, and just one extraordinary finding is that initially each of the two halves of the tomb were used to place the remains of the dead from one of two branches of the same family. This is of wider importance because it suggests that the architectural layout of other Neolithic tombs might tell us about how kinship operated at those tombs.”

The DNA analysis has revealed ages, genders and family ties. “We have built up a much more detailed biographical picture of those individuals which makes them much more relatable to us as people,” he said.

Fowler said similar studies of tombs in Ireland had concluded that remains were not biologically related, which makes the Hazleton North discovery “quite an extraordinary result”.

Researchers also found that males who today we would call stepsons were adopted into the lineage, suggesting “blended” families can’t be considered just a modern phenomenon.

Iñigo Olalde, the lead geneticist on the study, said using the latest technologies in ancient DNA recovery had allowed the team “to uncover the oldest family tree ever reconstructed and analyse it to understand something profound about the social structure of these ancient groups”.

David Reich at Harvard University, whose laboratory led the ancient DNA generation, added: “This study reflects what I think is the future of ancient DNA: one in which archaeologists are able to apply ancient DNA analysis at sufficiently high resolution to address the questions that truly matter to archaeologists.”

Ron Pinhasi, of the University of Vienna, said: “It was difficult to imagine just a few years ago that we would ever know about Neolithic kinship structures. But this is just the beginning and no doubt there is a lot more to be discovered from other sites in Britain, Atlantic France, and other regions.”

The project was an international collaboration between archaeologists from the Universities of Newcastle, York, Exeter and Central Lancashire, and geneticists at the University of Vienna, University of the Basque Country and Harvard University.