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Studying Bronze Age Burials Reveals Cross-continental Family Bonds

The two graves studied date back to around 3,800 years ago. 

Two remarkably similar burials found hundreds of miles apart have shed new light on family relationships during the Bronze Age.

The two graves in Britain and Luxembourg, which date back to around 3,800 years ago, each show an adult buried in a final loving embrace with a child they were related to.

DNA analysis of the remains reveals that the bodies in the European grave are of a mother and her son, whilst the bodies in Britain were of an aunt and her young niece.

Archaeologists from Universities across Europe say the new findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, suggest early Bronze Age civilizations across Europe mourned their dead according to widely held and closely followed family rituals.

The two graves in Britain and Luxembourg, which date back to around 3,800 years ago, each show an adult buried in a final loving embrace with a child they were related to. PHOTO BY PIXABAY/PEXELS 

Poignant prehistoric burials containing the remains of an adult and child laid together in the grave as though embracing in death have long fascinated historians and archaeologists.

The new study, by researchers at universities in Germany and Italy, provides insights into family relationships in prehistoric communities and the transition from collective to individual burial across Western Eurasia in the 3rd millennium BC.

Their results provide the first genetic evidence that Bell Beaker communities in Northwest Europe, who lived between 2450 and 1800 BC, buried children with their biological mothers and other close biological relatives.

In the year 2000, archaeologists from Luxembourg working on the construction of a road in Altwies in the south of the country discovered graves dating back to the Bell Beaker period, which began nearly four millennia ago.

The two graves in Britain and Luxembourg, which date back to around 3,800 years ago, each show an adult buried in a final loving embrace with a child they were related to. PHOTO BY PIXABAY/PEXELS 

One particularly interesting grave contained the skeletons of a woman and child, buried facing each other, with the adult holding the head of the dead child in her hand in a final gesture of maternal love.

As part of a new project on the prehistory of Luxembourg, this ancient family tragedy provided the team of European researchers with the opportunity to answer wider questions about Bronze Age burial practices and family relationships in Europe using archaeology, anthropology, and ancient DNA.

This is because the burial in Luxembourg was far from unique, with the Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques (INRA) having previously uncovered a hauntingly similar grave from Dunstable Downs in Bedfordshire – more than 500km (1640420 feet) (310 miles) from the burial site in Altwies.

This burial, uncovered in 1887, led archaeologists to investigate whether the two graves were in any way connected.

Despite their early excavation date, the provenance of the skeletons was well-documented and the bones were in a good state of preservation.

Anthropologist Dr. Nicoletta Zedda, from the University of Ferrara in Italy, was able to examine the remains and, together with geneticists from the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in Germany, they were able to analyze the genomes of all four skeletons from the two adult-child burials.

The analysis revealed fascinating insights into shared ancestry and culture across Early Bronze Age Europe.

The ancestry of all four buried individuals, though separated by hundreds of miles, was traced mostly from steppe populations that migrated from Eastern and Central Europe in the 3rd millennium BC.

But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the researchers’ findings was the family relationships that were revealed.

“The skeletons from Altwies were of a woman and a boy of around three years of age, and DNA analysis revealed that they were indeed mother and son,” Dr. Zedda explained.

“The picture looks different for Dunstable Downs: a young woman and a girl about six years old – but DNA revealed they are in fact paternal aunt and niece.”

Across continental Europe, the orientation of Bell Beaker graves followed strict rules based on the sex of the individual.

In Altwies, the orientation of the grave was aligned with the sex of the child – a male – and not that of his biological mother.

At Dunstable Downs, however, the adult and child were second-degree related on the paternal side, suggesting a paternal aunt perhaps played the role of substitute parent or primary caregiver for the child, at least in death.

Archaeologist Dr. Maxime Brami, of JGU, said: “The data might hint at a patrilineal descent system for western Eurasian Bell Beaker people.

“Our findings suggest that – at least in some Early Bronze Age communities – extended families lived and buried their dead together; placing emphasis on biological and kin relationships.”

How these ancient humans met their deaths and the reasons for their being buried together remain unknown, and no marks of violence were found on any of the skeletons.

Further research for the project uncovered more than a hundred joint burials of adults and children similar to the two focused on in this study, dating from the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC.

The researchers suggested the joint burials and simultaneous deaths could have been the result of violence, infections or pandemics.

But the similarities of the two burials from Britain and Central Europe suggest communities, and in all likelihood families in Bell Beaker Europe mourned their dead according to widely-held, closely-followed formal rituals.

“The body of a woman, lying as though sleeping, clasping a child in her arms, is poignant and emotive,” Dr. Brami added.

“Although that peaceful image may be deceptive, it still reflects a lost meaning retained across thousands of miles and amongst many diverse cultures.”

Produced in association with SWNS Talker

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