Earliest Known Nuclear Family Found; Died in Massacre?

Carolyn Barry
for National Geographic News
November 17, 2008
The oldest known burial of a nuclear family, which includes a mother, father, and two boys, has been unearthed in Germany.

The 4,600-year-old family, which was buried together in a deliberate huddle, may have died during a violent massacre.

The find also gives scientists clues about the social organization of the late Stone Age period, which started around 10,000 B.C.

The skeletons were uncovered in 2005 in a group of graves at an archeological site in the Eulau region.

The excavation revealed four separate graves containing 13 bodies—5 adults and 8 children. Within the group, DNA analysis confirmed a family of four, with the two children between 4 to 5 and 8 to 9 years old, respectively.

"We were lucky to find a site like that," said lead study author Wolfgang Haak, from the University of Adelaide in Australia.

"Normally a family doesn't die at the same time and isn't buried in the same time."

Multiple burials occurred during the Neolithic, but individuals were usually buried at different times, sometimes years apart, Haak added. (See a burial dubbed the Stone Age embrace that was found in the Sahara desert.)

Family Ties

Radiocarbon dating showed the family lived around 2600 B.C. and belonged to the Corded Ware culture, named for the distinctive twisted impressions that decorated artifacts of the time.

However, archeologists rarely find Corded Ware settlements, so they rely on information from burial sites to piece together the culture of the ancient people.

The new find hints that family relationships played a hefty role in the society, according to the study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Males were buried facing one direction, and females another direction. But in the newfound burial, the boys were buried in an unconventional position, facing their parents.

"I think they wanted to reflect a logical relationship, to tell us that these people belong together," Haak said.

In a nearby grave, a boy and girl do not face the female adult buried with them.

Genetic testing showed that those children were siblings but were not related to the adult. "She may have been an aunt, or a stepmother," Haak said.

This study "provides conclusive genetic evidence for the simultaneous burial of a small nuclear family," said Louise Humphrey, a paleontologist with the Natural History Museum in London.

"This suggests that family ties were close and respected even in death," added Humphrey, who was not involved with the research.

Tracing Origins

Researchers measured the ratio of strontium—a metallic element—in the bones and teeth of the bodies.

The results were compared with the local surroundings, giving an indication of where the people had originated.

The men had stayed within their childhood area, but the women had been raised in different locations, the data showed.

The evidence "implies that the women in the community had migrated to the region from a location at least 60 kilometers [37 miles] away, possibly at the time of their marriage," Humphrey said.

This practice would have reduced the likelihood of inbreeding, she added.

"Sudden and Violent End"

The bodies exhibited evidence of brutality commonly seen in the Neolithic, lead author Haak said.

An arrow lodged in the vertebrae of one adult, as well as skull fractures and defensive wounds among others, point to a "sudden and violent end," Haak said.

Radiocarbon dating showed the burials occurred around the same time, "probably even the same day," Haak said—suggesting the village was attacked. Based on the grave finds, adults older than 30 and children younger than 10 appear to have been the only people killed during the possible attack.

This could mean that the stronger members survived the attackers, or that they were perhaps out hunting for food at the time of the raid, Haak hypothesized.

Whatever happened, the survivors "must have returned to bury [the dead] with that careful treatment that we see today," Haak said.

"Someone must have known what the story was. They wanted to preserve that."

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