DNA analyzes provide insight into megalithic culture


Drawing of the burial mounds of Fleury-sur-Orne. © Laurent Juhel

Around 6,500 years ago, the gigantic burial mounds of the Cerny culture, one of the first megalithic cultures of the Stone Age, emerged in Normandy. Now DNA analysis of 14 dead people from one of these sites is revealing more about the social structure of these communities. The fact that only single men or father-son couples were buried in the mounds speaks for a patrilineal and patriarchal society. A woman who has been buried with male attributes is all the more surprising.

The Middle Neolithic is characterized in Western Europe by monumental tombs. Almost everywhere along the Atlantic coast of Europe, people began to bury their dead in megalithic tombs, burial mounds and other megalithic structures. One of the earliest manifestations of these megalithic cultures is the Cerny culture, which arose around 6500 years ago in the Paris Basin and then spread to Normandy. Typical of this culture are long burial mounds made of heaped up earth.

300 meter long burial mounds

In Fleury-sur-Orne in Normandy lies one of the best-known and best-researched burial sites of the Cerny culture. There are 32 burial mounds, up to 300 meters long, in which typically only one person, more rarely two or three, were buried. Additions of arrowheads, bows and possibly also quivers mark the dead with a particularly high status and correspondingly large burial mounds. Radiocarbon dating of 15 bodies buried at Fleury-sur-Orne suggests that most of these burial mounds date from between 4600 and 4300 BC. BC, three of the graves are slightly younger and date from after 4000 BC. Chr.

In order to learn more about the dead and the social structure of the Cerny culture behind the burial practices, Maïté Rivollat ​​from the University of Bordeaux and her colleagues have now subjected 14 of the 19 dead bodies excavated so far from this burial site to a genome analysis. Using DNA comparisons, they wanted to find out, among other things: “Was the site used by a homogeneous group? Does the burial site contain one or more biological families and what lineages can be inferred from the genetic structure?” writes the team.

men instead of families

The DNA analyzes revealed: 13 of the 14 dead were male, but mostly not directly related to each other. The exception was two individuals buried in pairs in a burial mound, which turned out to be father-son pairs. The burial practice of the Cerny culture differs significantly from that of the megalithic cultures in Ireland and Great Britain: “In Ireland, passage graves contain chambers that can contain up to several dozen bodies,” report Rivollat ​​and her colleagues. These are often close relatives. In England, 27 closely related dead were also found in a Neolithic burial mound. “This suggests that the funeral organization was based on a family system,” say the archaeologists.

It was different in Fleury-sur-Orne: Although the dead in the various burial mounds were largely of similar origin, they were not members of the same family or kinship group. From this, the researchers conclude that the social structure and the assignment of a high status could differ in the various regional characteristics of the megalithic cultures. According to Rivollat ​​and her team, however, the dominance of the male dead in the burial mounds of the Cerny culture indicates a male-dominated transmission of sociopolitical authority. The burial of the two father-son couples could also point to a patrilineal social system.

A woman with masculine attributes

The only exception among the 14 dead is all the more surprising: One person was genetically clearly female, but was buried in a large burial mound. “Her tomb is positioned in the central axis of the monument, and she was buried with four arrowheads, a type of artifact thought to be associated exclusively with men in the Cerny culture,” the archaeologists report. In her view, this suggests that this woman was apparently considered a kind of honorary man during her lifetime. This male role ascribed to her gave her the honor of being buried in a grave usually reserved for men.

Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi: 10.1073/pnas.2120786119

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