Located about nine miles from Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, Hazleton North is a Neolithic long cairn – a kind of chambered tomb that is found across much of southern Britain. This particular example, built c.3700 BC, has two opposed L-shaped chambered areas (‘North’ and ‘South’), each with their own separate entrance, passageway, and chamber, and when the tomb was excavated (by Alan Saville, between 1979 and 1982) these chambered areas were found to contain the well-preserved remains of at least 41 men, women, and children.
Now ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis of 74 samples, mostly taken from teeth and petrous bones (a dense part of the base of the skull, near the ear), has produced genome-wide data for 35 of these people, revealing thought-provoking insights into how this community may have understood kinship, and how this might have influenced the organisation of the tomb. This study involved archaeologists from the Universities of Newcastle, York, Exeter, and Central Lancashire, and geneticists from the Universities of the Basque Country, Vienna, and Harvard. Their findings, recently published in Nature (see ‘Further information’), have reconstructed a five-generation family tree containing 27 individuals – three times more people than the largest pedigrees previously traced using aDNA.
Strikingly, the vast majority of males in this family tree are descended from a single founding male (known as NC1m) and four women that he reproduced with (SC1f, NC2f, NC3f, and U3f). It is not clear whether these partnerships reflect a polygamous society or successive relatively short monogamous relationships, but it appears that patrilineal descent was the key factor in determining whether a person was buried at Hazleton North. In all, the 15 parent-to-child links connecting the third through fifth generations of the family to the first two went through males, and there were many more males than females present – 26 out of the 35 individuals studied.
Of the nine females sampled, four were the reproductive partners of at least one man in the reconstructed lineage. Two more were daughters who had died in childhood, but it was notable that, while 14 adult sons could be identified among the tomb population, there were no adult daughters. This might be because such individuals were treated differently in death, perhaps being buried elsewhere locally or given an alternative funerary rite such as cremation or excarnation, the researchers suggest – or, it might reflect an exogamous society where daughters tended to ‘marry out’, moving to live with their partner’s kin and being interred in their new community’s tomb instead. Might this custom also be suggested by the fact that three of the Hazleton North women, U6f, NC2f, and NC3f, had children with two different men? Given that in each pair the men are blood relatives, is it possible to speculate that the links between communities that were forged through such unions were so important that these ties were renewed through new pairings on the death of the original male partner?
Concepts of kinship
While a person’s right to use the tomb seems to have depended largely on paternal ties, however, it appears to have been maternal ancestry that determined which chamber they were buried in. A clear division could be seen, with the northern chamber holding early generation descendants of two of the founder women (NC2f and NC3f), while all the descendants of the other two women (SC1f and U3f) had been placed in the southern chamber. (Where later decendants of NC2f and NC3f had been placed in the south side, the team suggests this was due to the north chamber being blocked off when its passage collapsed c.3600-3630 BC.) This might indicate that the four women were seen as socially significant, the researchers suggest, and that the family tree was divided into two branches, each comprising a pair of maternal sub-lineages. Might this split have been anticipated by Neolithic builders and factored into the tomb’s design?
It appears that this family’s perceptions of kinship were more complex than simply centring on genetic relationships, however. Three ‘step-sons’ – individuals whose own fathers lay outside the family tree, but whose mothers had gone on to reproduce with lineage men – as well as the son of a ‘step-son’ had been admitted to the tomb. Moreover, there were eight other people who had no biological links at all to the rest of the group. It is possible that the three women among these could be partners of lineage men who had no children or only had daughters (who, as discussed above, may have been buried elsewhere), but the presence of five unrelated men is harder to explain. It is possible that ‘kinship by association’, perhaps from living or working together, or adoption were at play, the team suggests. Alternatively, these men could be more ‘step-sons’, but ones where neither mother nor half-sibling are in the sampled remains.
Although kinship customs may have varied between and within different regions, Hazleton North offers a fascinating starting point for understanding how early Neolithic societies may have been organised. The prospects for future research to clarify this picture are exciting – c.100 long cairns lie within 50km of the tomb, and analysis of their occupants would reveal if they were arranged similarly.
C Fowler, I Olalde, V Cummings, et al. (2021) ‘A high-resolution picture of kinship practices in an Early Neolithic tomb’, Nature, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586- 021-04241-4.
N Carlin (2021) ‘A grave matter of ancient kinship in Neolithic Britain’, https://media.nature.com/original/magazine-assets/d41586-021-03799-3/d41586-021-03799-3.pdf.
The site is on private land and there is nothing to see there, but the Corinium Museum in Cirencester has a display about the tomb (for more details, see www.coriniummuseum.org.)