November 18, 2008

Researchers Discover Oldest Evidence Of Nuclear Family

The earliest evidence of people living together as a family was found in a 4,600-year-old grave in Germany containing the remains of two adults and their children.

Researchers said on Monday the discovery provides the earliest evidence that even prehistoric tribes attached importance to the family unit.

DNA analysis and other techniques were used to determine that the group buried facing each other -- an unusual practice in Neolithic culture -- consisted of a mother, father and their two sons aged 8-9 and 4-5 years.

"Their unity in death suggests unity in life," the researchers wrote in Tuesday's edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Wolfgang Haak of the University of Adelaide said that by establishing the genetic links between the two adults and two children buried together in one grave, they established the presence of the classic nuclear family in a prehistoric context in Central Europe.

"It is to our knowledge the oldest authentic molecular genetic evidence so far," he added.

Four multiple burials were studied at Eulau, Saxony-Anhalt, where all were dated to the same time and contained adults and children carefully buried facing each other.

Researchers said many of the skeletons showed evidence of injuries, suggesting a violent attack. There was a stone projectile point in the vertebra of one woman and another had a skull fracture.

"Our study of the Eulau individuals shows that their deaths were sudden and violent, apparent in lesions caused by stone axes and arrows, with evidence of attempts of some of the individuals to defend themselves from blows," the researchers wrote.

Such violence fits with what we know about life in central Europe at the time, researchers said. The area had fertile soils, a stable climate and natural access routes which made it a desirable place to live, but also created competition amongst its inhabitants, leading to violent confrontations when one community tried to displace another.

An analysis of dental remains showed that the females came from different regions than the males and their children.

The researchers said it was evidence that men sought partners from different regions to avoid inbreeding and that it was customary for women to move to the location of the males.

Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol, who co-led the study, said such traditions would have been important to avoid inbreeding and to forge kinship networks with other communities.


Image Caption: Human remains in a grave near Eulau in Germany. Wolfgang Haak


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