Tuesday, 18 November 2008
by Derry Nairn
The discovery of a number of neolithic graves in Germany have suggested the earliest evidence of nuclear families. Four 4,600 year old graves have been excavated in Germany, and the remains of their 14 occupants analysed. Using mitochondrial and nuclear DNA techniques, and the patterns of burial, experts then concluded the relations between the buried.
One grave contained an adult man, an adult woman and two boys, all in close proximity. Another contained an adult female with three children. The first was reckoned to contain closely related individuals, and the second a group of siblings buried with their aunt or guardian. Wolfgang Haak, a geneticist at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA in Adelaide, claims these finds have "established the presence of the classic nuclear family in a prehistoric context."
The people were members of the Corded Ware culture, named after their practice of decorating pots using twisted cord. Unhealed injuries on the skeletons suggest they died in violent circumstances. Other evidence from the individuals' dental strontium isotope content suggest the men originated in the same area as they were buried, but the women came from afar.
Others hold doubts about the evidence. Marek Zvelebil, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield observed that the genetic markers the Adelaide team used are "very widespread in Europe." The orientation of older graves, some dating back 9,500 years, have suggested nuclear family relations. However these are less easily established without DNA evidence.
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