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Monday, November 17, 2008

Prehistoric family values

Today on Science's online news service, ScienceNOW, I report on a very cool paper that claims very early genetic evidence for the nuclear family--4600 years ago, at an early farming site in Germany. The link is free for 4 weeks from today, but here are a few extracts from my story:

When Barack Obama moves into the White House in January, he'll bring his wife and children with him. The nuclear family is not only as American as apple pie but also the cultural norm in most societies across the world. New genetic and chemical analyses of 4600-year-old burials in Germany suggests that family togetherness has deep roots, going back at least as far the beginnings of agriculture in Europe.

The basic research findings:

... a team led by Wolfgang Haak, a geneticist at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA in Adelaide, claims to have worked out some family relationships in a remarkable series of burials uncovered in central Germany in 2005. At the early farming site of Eulau, German archaeologists found four graves containing 13 individuals who had apparently met a violent death. Two graves were particularly well-preserved: In one, an adult male and female had been placed on their sides, face to face and arms intertwined with two boys; in the other, an adult woman was buried facing away from two girls and a boy. Working with the German team, Haak and colleagues were able to extract enough mitochondrial and nuclear DNA from the skeletons in the first grave to conclude that the two adults were the parents of the two boys. In the second grave, the team concluded that the three children were probably brothers and sisters, although the adult female was not their mother. Rather, the researchers suggest, she might have been an aunt or a step-mother.

The paper also reports evidence from strontium analyses of their teeth that the men and children in the graves came from the local area, but the women came from afar--examples of what researchers call patrilocality and exogamous mating. To get the full story, please click on the link.

Photo: Together in death. Genetic analysis suggests that a mother, a father, and their two boys were buried in the same grave. Courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences.

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