In DepthArchaeology

Incest in ancient Ireland suggests an elite ruled early farmers

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Science  19 Jun 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6497, pp. 1299
DOI: 10.1126/science.368.6497.1299

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Summary

Twenty-five kilometers north of Dublin, a masterpiece of Stone Age engineering rises from the hills: a circular structure 12 meters high, almost the area of a U.S. football field, and made up of more than 200,000 tons of earth and stone. Some of the first farmers to arrive in Ireland erected this monument, called Newgrange, nearly 1000 years before Stonehenge or Egypt's first pyramids were built. Archaeologists have assumed it was a ceremonial site and communal tomb—an expression of an egalitarian society. Now, DNA from a middle-aged man buried in 3200 B.C.E. at the center of this mighty mound suggests otherwise. His genes indicate he had parents so closely related they must have been brother and sister or parent and child. Across cultures, incest is almost always taboo—except in inbred royal families. Its genetic traces at Newgrange suggest social hierarchy took hold in Ireland earlier than thought, according to a new study that also includes DNA from 40 other ancient Irish tombs.

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