Archaeologists working with Geneticists from the Trinity College Dublin have determined that a burial in the Newgrange passage tomb shows indications of first-degree incest.
Newgrange is a prehistoric passage tomb in County Meath, Ireland. built during the Neolithic period around 3200 BC and predates monuments such as Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. The site consists of a circular mount with retaining walls and contains stone passages and chambers where human remains have been discovered on previous archaeology excavations by antiquarians from the 18th century.
Normally we inherit two copies of the genome, one from each parent, but the individual buried in the chamber had genomes that were remarkably similar, suggesting that his parents were first-degree relatives and are a key indicator of inbreeding.
Mating with those who are closely related genetically is generally unheard of from a cultural and biological stance. The only confirmed social acceptance has come from elites or rulers in society where Inter-nobility marriage was used as a method of forming political alliances or where Royal intermarriage was often practiced among European royal families, usually for interests of the state. In ancient Egypt, Royal women would often marry their brother (pharaoh), in such cases, a special combination between endogamy and polygamy is found.
Dan Bradley, Professor of Population Genetics at Trinity said: “Here the auspicious location of the male skeletal remains is matched by the unprecedented nature of his ancient genome. The prestige of the burial makes this very likely a socially sanctioned union and speaks of a hierarchy so extreme that the only partners worthy of the elite were family members.”
The researchers also determined that the man had distant familial relations from an extended kin-group by studying burials from other sites across Ireland, such as the cemeteries of Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in Co. Sligo.
Interestingly, a local story mentions the myth of a ruler who restarted the daily solar cycle by sleeping with his sister. The Middle Irish place name for the neighbouring Dowth passage tomb, Fertae Chuile, is based on this lore and can be translated as ‘Hill of Sin’.
The study has also revealed that the monument builders at Newgrange were farmers who migrated to Ireland and swamped the earlier hunter-gather population rather than completely replacing them.
One particular Irish hunter-gatherer studied showed that they were closely related to hunter-gatherer populations found in Britain, such as the Cheddar Man found in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, England but showed the genetic imprint of prolonged island isolation.
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