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Newgrange passage tomb

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A man buried at the heart of the 5000-year-old Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland was born from an incestuous union, DNA sequencing has revealed. The discovery suggests that the ruling elite in Stone Age Ireland married within their family, like some ancient Egyptian dynasties.

Daniel Bradley and Lara Cassidy at Trinity College Dublin have been sequencing the genomes of ancient people. One of these genomes is of an adult male whose bones were found in the most elaborately decorated recess in the chamber at the heart of the Newgrange tomb in the Boyne Valley.

This massive, 200,000-tonne structure has a narrow passage leading to the burial chamber. For a few days during the winter solstice, the rising sun shines down the passage to illuminate the chamber.

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“At the time it would have been a big deal. It required a lot of muscle to build,” says Bradley. “People have said it is the Irish equivalent of the pyramids.”

The man’s genome shows that his parents were either brother and sister, or parent and offspring. Such incestuous unions are taboo in almost all societies, but the fact that the man’s remains were found at the heart of the tomb suggests his parents’ relationship was socially sanctioned.

This is known to have been the case in societies where some rulers considered themselves gods and therefore above marrying common mortals, such as the Incan empire, Polynesian societies on Hawaii and ancient Egypt.

Based on these comparisons, the team thinks the man’s parents were most likely to be a brother and sister belonging to the ruling elite, but there is no way to tell for sure.

Intriguingly, the old name for the nearby Dowth tomb, Fertae Chuile, translates as “Hill of Sin”. According to a local myth first written down in the 11th century, people pledged to build for the king for one day only. The king’s sister made the sun stand still so they would work for longer, but the king broke the spell by having intercourse with her.

In a 1990 paper, John Carey at the University of Cork, Ireland, pointed out that the Newgrange tomb passage was buried not long after the structure was built, so the fact the myth mentions the sun suggests it really might derive from around the time that Newgrange was built. The latest discovery strengthens the case.

“Is it possible? I don’t know,” says Bradley. “But it’s a remarkable coincidence.”

Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2378-6

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