Kinship and Early Neolithic chambered tombs in Britain

by Professor Chris Fowler

Professor Chris Fowler started his talk by telling us of the hundreds of surviving tombs from Early Neolithic Britain and Ireland (c.4000 to 3400 BC). These Early Neolithic tombs are very varied, with a simple architectural structure of a rectangular chamber cell, which was combined in different ways.

While recent research has looked at the positioning of tombs in the landscape, of what and how they were built, and the condition of the human remains found within them, Chris is interested in what these structures can tell us about kinship in the Early Neolithic. 

Using ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis, the interred at Hazleton North, a Neolithic chambered long cairn, were studied. Chris wanted to find out if the architecture of the tomb; the two different chambers, were related to the kinship of the people deposited there.

Previous isotope analyses on the interred at Hazelton North have been interpreted as the deceased eating a similar diet. Other isotope studies indicated mobility across the land to about 40km to the south, with some individuals having spent their early years about 20km to the west. The people were defined as having a “pattern of residential, tethered mobility.”

Hazelton North has two burial chambers; the North chamber and the South chamber, positioned opposite each other at about the midpoint of the long cairn. While the South chamber remained open during the period of deposition, in the North chamber, the passage had collapsed sometime after deposits had been made in the inner chamber, with deposits then made in the North Entrance. 

Differences in mortuary practice were seen between the two chambers. Thus, in the North chamber, some bones had been gnawed by canids (dogs, wolves, etc.), some showed signs of weathering, and other bones had been cremated.

The osteological MNI (minimum number of individuals), from the site was 41, and included 22 adults, 2 juveniles, 10 children and 7 infants. The total number of genetic individuals found was 35, with 26 being male and 9 being female. Of the subadults, 9 were male and 2 were female. 27 individuals were close biological relatives, spanning five generations. 

From Hazelton North chambered cairn “the world’s oldest family tree” has been constructed, with aDNA samples showing how five generations of the same family were interred there. We looked at diagrams displaying the data from the 35 genetic individuals found, which showed how gender, life stage and kinship were connected at the tomb.

On a diagram entitled “Patrilineal descent”, we could see there were 14 direct father-to-son connections between the generations. There was no matrilineal descent; no cases where mother and daughter were both present.

Chris explained the coding system. Thus, NC1m was a male found in the North [inner] Chamber, numbered 1 because he was first in the family tree. U4f was an Unsampled female lower down in the tree. Her existence can be inferred from her descendant, but her remains have not been found in the tomb.

A diagram entitled “Founding female ancestors (all with grandchildren in the tomb)”, was absolutely fascinating! Given the male bias, it was interesting to see that four females, all mates of NC1m, who was at the head of the family tree, were all first- or second-generation women with sons and grandsons in the tomb. The women appeared to have special status as lineage founders, giving three of them a place in the tomb, which other women, such as the mates of their sons and grandsons, did not get.

One of the founding female ancestors, U3f, was not found in the tomb; she may have died and been interred elsewhere before Hazleton North chambered cairn was thought of, and then built. Only lineage females who died in childhood were buried here, suggesting that adult lineage females were interred elsewhere, or given different mortuary rites.

Looking at a diagram entitled “Growing the lineage: founding mothers’ sons (with non-lineage biological fathers),” it was fascinating to see that there were three males in the tomb whose biological fathers were not present, but whose mothers had reproduced with a lineage male. We cannot know if the three males’ biological paternity was known at the time, but they were interred in the tomb, implying that they were incorporated into the lineage.

A diagram entitled “Deposition patterns suggest sub-lineages based on (paternal) descent from first generation women,” showed how the different sub-lineages were deposited in the two chambers. Thus, descendants of founding females NC2f and NC3f were usually deposited in the North chamber, while descendants of the other two founding females; SC1f and U3f, were deposited in the South chamber.

Non-lineage individuals were deposited in all parts of the tomb. It was thought the women may have been the mates of lineage males who had no children deposited in the tomb. Or, they may all have been ‘adoptive’ kin, or included for other reasons. Thus, an articulated male skeleton, buried with flint knapping accoutrements, was that of a non-lineage individual, but he apparently merited a place in the tomb.

Hazelton North chambered cairn appears to have been built slowly over five to ten years, possibly as the lineage grew in generation 2. None of the deposited were generation 1 children, suggesting any who died young were interred elsewhere before the tomb was built.

Genetic analysis shows that reproducing with multiple partners was common amongst the first two generations, where both men and women had multiple mates, which led to a rapid expansion of the lineage. However, this practice decreased over time, and the lineage later declined. Unlike other tombs in the Cotswold-Severn area, Hazleton North was not modified, and was later abandoned.

Chris described other Cotswold-Severn tombs, such as Ascott-under-Wychwood, very similar structurally to Hazelton North, and also used over five consecutive generations. Other Cotswold-Severn tombs show different chamber arrangements, and some were modified over time. We looked at the architecture of transcepted tombs, such as Wayland’s Smithy II, but which have, as yet, no aDNA studies to compare with those of Hazleton North. 

Early Neolithic tomb architecture, combined with osteological and genetic analyses, can reveal fascinating information about Neolithic kinship. It would be most interesting to see if the kinship patterns seen at Hazleton North, such as patrilineal descent, including that by possibly ‘adopted’ males, and the honouring of ‘founding females’ with a place in the tomb, are repeated elsewhere. 

Report by Joan Burrow-Newton