Uncovering the Mega-secrets of Megaliths

The Neolithic period emerged near the end of the Stone Age. It was marked by dramatic human behavioural and cultural changes including the domestication of plants and animals. The Neolithic lifestyle migrated across Europe starting in Anatolia and arriving in the British Isles and Scandinavia around 4000 BCE. It was during this time that megalithic (large stone) tombs started to appear above ground in France (4500 BCE), the British Isles (3700 BCE), and Scandinavia (3600 BCE). From medieval times to the current day, people have studied megalithic tombs to determine their origins and help us understand Neolithic cultures. For example, while it is clear that many megaliths were collective tombs, certain megaliths contain artifacts that suggest social stratification in Neolithic communities. In studying these tombs, there have been a few surprises; for example, megalith burial sites were thought to hold kin-related people, which has been questioned by recent genomic studies that revealed large lineage variation. To improve the current understanding of megalithic tombs, a group of researchers lead by Federico Sánchez-Quinto (Uppsala University) used the latest genome sequencing technology to investigate the demographics of megalith tombs. Using genetic information in combination with data collected from previous studies, the group was also able to investigate the social dynamics and demographic history of Neolithic people.

Megalithic tomb (Wikimedia Commons).

The researchers began by collecting genomic data from 24 individuals from five megalith tombs (dated between 3800-2600 BCE) located in Ireland, the Orkney Islands, and the Island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. For comparison, they also collected genomic data from three individuals not buried in megaliths from mainland Scotland (3370-3100 BCE) and the Czech Republic (4825-4555 BCE). This new dataset was compared to a pre-existing dataset from 36 individuals from 16 megalithic sites. These comparative studies revealed that; 1) megalithic tombs were associated with socially stratified Neolithic farming populations; 2) more males than females were buried in megaliths suggesting that at least some tombs were used by patrilineal (relationship to father) communities; and (3) the individuals from Scandinavia, Britain, and Ireland showed a genetic connection, which suggests the groups migrated along the Atlantic coast.

This study has advanced our understanding of megalithic tombs and how ancient societies functioned in Northern Europe, and nicely demonstrates how modern genetic testing methods can be combined with archeology to help us understand historical events.

Summary written by: Emma Finlayson-Trick

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Megalithic tombs in western and northern Neolithic Europe were linked to a kindred society

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