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Socially sanctioned incest among Neolithic elite, research suggests

The finding centres around the remains of a man found at Newgrange, a 5,000-year-old passage tomb in Co Meath.

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People gather for sunrise at Newgrange (Brian Lawless/PA)

People gather for sunrise at Newgrange (Brian Lawless/PA)

People gather for sunrise at Newgrange (Brian Lawless/PA)

New research has indicated socially sanctioned incestuous relationships among the elite in Neolithic Ireland.

The finding centres around the remains of an adult male found at the 5,000-year-old Unesco passage tomb at Newgrange in Co Meath.

The study involving Trinity College Dublin and University College London (UCL), published in Nature, uses genetic sequencing to reveal the man’s relatives were buried in other passage tombs more than 100 km away, pointing to a powerful social elite at the top of Irish Neolithic society.

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Newgrange, Co Meath (PA)

Newgrange, Co Meath (PA)

PA

Newgrange, Co Meath (PA)

The man was buried within the most ornate chamber in the tomb, with specialised ritual inventory, and winter solstice solar alignment that would have been viewed only by a select few.

Professor Dan Bradley, of Trinity College Dublin, said: “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 sequenced 44 whole genomes from Irish Neolithic people, alongside relevant ancient genomes.

These were merged with an ancient dataset to allow for more detailed analysis of population structure and estimation of inbreeding.

Overall, the researchers observed no increase in inbreeding during the Neolithic period in Ireland, indicating that communities maintained sufficient size and communication to avoid mating with fifth degree relatives or closer.

Dr Thomas Kador from UCL, said the new evidence matched up with tales from mythology.

“In Irish mythology there is a tradition associating the tombs of the Boyne Valley with incestuous relationships among ancient royals and deities, and it is striking how these stories resonate with our findings,” he said.

“Irish folklore and literary scholars have long suggested that these stories, first recorded in the Middle Ages, date back to a longstanding oral tradition.

“However, nobody would have assumed that such traditions could stretch back to the Stone Age.”

PA