Neolithic French community’s family tree reveals “founding father”

Ancient DNA from 94 individuals buried at the Neolithic site at Gurgy ‘Les Noisats’ in northern France has been analysed, providing a picture of a community that existed 6,700 years ago.

Two family trees have been constructed from the data. One connects 64 individuals over seven generations, making it the largest lineage reconstructed from ancient DNA to date. The second pedigree links 12 individuals over five generations.

Family tree with faces and big face on right
Reconstructed family tree of the largest genetically related group in Gurgy: The painted portraits are an artistic interpretation of the individuals based on physical traits estimated from DNA (where available). The dotted squares (genetically male) and circles (genetically female) represent individuals who were not found at the site or did not provide sufficient DNA for analysis. Credit: Drawing by Elena Plain; reproduced with the permission of the University of Bordeaux / PACEA.

France’s Paris Basin is known for its ancient funerary sites marked with monuments built for the ancient society’s “elite.” Gurgy, on the other hand, is one of the biggest Neolithic funerary sites without monument in the region. Who were the people buried there?

Neolithic (late Stone Age) society emerged about 12,000 years ago in the Middle East.

Communities in this period of human history developed agriculture, supplanting the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that had dominated previously. This change in behaviour marks a huge shift in the human story and is considered the final stage of cultural evolution among prehistoric humans.

With the ability to sustain larger, denser populations, humans were able to develop writing, hierarchical structures and architecture. These developments led to the beginning of the Copper Age (Chalcolithic) about 6,500 years ago which marked the establishment of the first civilisations on Earth.

The Gurgy burials date from the end of the Neolithic, after this form of societal planning spread to western Europe.

Researchers used a range of techniques to analyse the ancient DNA. They combined genome-wide analysis with strontium isotope ratio values, mitochondrial DNA (maternal lineages) and Y-chromosome (paternal lineages) data, age-at-death, and genetic sex to build a picture of the ancient community.

The results are published in Nature.

“Since the beginning of the excavation, we found evidence of a complete control of the funerary space and only very few overlapping burials, which felt like the site was managed by a group of closely related individuals, or at least by people who knew who was buried where,” says co-author Stéphane Rottier, an archaeo-anthropologist from the University of Bordeaux. Rottier excavated the site between 2004 and 2007.

The data reveals a strong lineage along the paternal line. Mitochondrial DNA (from the mother) shows evidence that most females in the community came from outside Gurgy before having children, while the males remained where they were born.

Females from outside Gurgy were only distantly related, suggesting they came from a network of nearby communities instead of just one group.

“We observe a large number of full siblings who have reached reproductive age,” says first author Maïté Rivollat. “Combined with the expected equal number of females and significant number of deceased infants, this indicates large family sizes, a high fertility rate and generally stable conditions of health and nutrition, which is quite striking for such ancient times.”

One male individual was found from whom everyone in the larger family tree was descended. This “founding father” had a unique burial at the site. His skeleton was buried inside the grave of a woman, for whom, unfortunately, no genomic data could be obtained. His bones must, therefore, have been brought from wherever he had originally died to be reburied at Gurgy.

Family tree with faces and line drawing face on left
The “founding father” of the cemetery died elsewhere but was reburied at Gurgy. He must have been of great significance to the close kin group who used the cemetary. Credit: © Drawing by Elena Plain; reproduced with the permission of the University of Bordeaux / PACEA.

“He must have represented a person of great significance for the founders of the Gurgy site to be brought there after a primary burial somewhere else,” explains co-senior author Marie-France Deguilloux from the University of Bordeaux.

Gurgy was only settled for about 100 years before the Neolithic peoples left.

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