In the sixth millennium B.C.E. the first farmers reached Western Europe. Who were these people, how did they live, and what was their family structure like? Some of these questions may now be answerable, thanks to gene and isotope analyses in combination with archaeological observations. By studying the remains of more than 100 dead individuals buried between 4850 and 4500 B.C.E. at the Gurgy “Les Noisats” cemetery in central France, a team of researchers has reconstructed two family trees spanning several generations.

“This was quite a journey for all of us,” says senior author Wolfgang Haak, a molecular anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. “We were actually quite surprised by a lot of things that we discovered.”

The researchers who investigated remains at Gurgy, led by Maïté Rivollat, then at the University of Bordeaux in France, published their findings in the journal Nature. Among the insights they made was the discovery that men in these Neolithic families lived and married near their home, while women came from communities elsewhere. Although archaeologists have observed that pattern at other sites, the findings at Gurgy present a highly detailed picture of multiple generations in a Stone Age community.

“This is a milestone for understanding how societies were structured in the past,” says archaeologist Philipp Stockhammer of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Stockhammer, who did not participate in the research, notes that the work could revolutionize the way we think about families in the Neolithic.

[Learn more about life in Neolithic Europe]

For the new study, the team combined genetic, archaeological and social anthropological methods to analyze the remains of the dead. The researchers gathered DNA from the cell nucleus and mitochondria within bone samples. They also assessed isotope levels and performed carbon dating to learn more about when and where individuals lived.

From the genetic data, the team pieced together two family trees. One lineage, to which at least 20 women and 44 men belonged, spanned seven generations. The researchers were also able to assign 12 people to a second, smaller family tree that consisted of seven women and five men. Other remains in the Neolithic cemetery at Gurgy either represented more distant relatives or were unrelated to the two families.

Women Moved while Men Stayed

The investigation found no parents for almost all of the adult women buried in the Gurgy cemetery. In fact, deceased female individuals were rarely related to either family tree, and there was an unbalanced sex ratio among the remains found on the site, suggesting that most of the adult daughters were absent. What might this mean? The researchers explain that this pattern suggests that women older than a certain age left their family and place of birth to reside with their reproductive partner elsewhere. The men at Gurgy, meanwhile, appeared to have stayed near their biological family.

The team also uncovered genetic clues to the women’s histories. Some were distantly related to one another. Presumably they could have come from the same outside community. The women’s movements may have reflected a common social custom of some kind. There was no evidence that these women had been abducted—nor did the graves suggest women held lower status than men.

Rather the researchers suspect that partnerships between men and women of different communities helped to form alliances and closer ties. If the man of one group became the grandfather of children in another community, for instance, that link may have bound people closer together. Perhaps this practice guaranteed a more peaceful coexistence—or supported trade and cultural exchange.

A family tree diagram includes portraits representing individuals from seven generations of one family
One of two family trees of people buried around 6,500 years ago in central France that were reconstructed by the research team. Credit: Drawing by Elena Plain; Reproduced with the permission of University of Bordeaux/PACEA

After arriving in Gurgy, the evidence suggests women entered into monogamous unions—that is, neither men nor women had multiple life partners. This insight came from genetic analyses that revealed numerous siblings but no half siblings. “That is a bit mind-boggling,” Haak says. Even highly monogamous societies, after all, frequently include half siblings because an adult might seek another partner if their spouse dies.

In addition, he notes, the generations at Gurgy seemed to enjoy a relatively safe, stable way of life. Couples raised many children to adulthood at a time when infant mortality was high. Such success may mean food and resources were abundant—and could also point to the existence of strong, supportive social networks.

The Bones of an Ancestor

Among the graves, one was especially distinct. According to the archaeologists, the remains of one man were bundled together. This collection of bones was incomplete—it included only a few long bones—and lay beside the remains of a woman from whom no DNA was successfully extracted.

The unusual arrangement suggests that the people had exhumed these remains from another location and then reburied them in Gurgy. Genetic analysis of this man revealed he was an ancestor of the larger family and had at least 66 descendants. “We’re now very curious to find out ‘What was the role of this female individual...?’ Was she his partner? His mother? His daughter?” Haak says. The team hopes to assess those remains in the future with improved genetic methods.

The locations of graves in the cemetery were also revealing. For example, once the genetic analysis was completed, the archaeologists realized that fathers were often buried next to their sons, and siblings were placed next to each other. This arrangement implies that people knew who was buried where—which, the scientists write, means there were likely markers above the graves, similar to today’s tombstones.

The fact that women came to the Gurgy families from elsewhere was also evident in the cemetery’s occupancy. Significantly fewer adult women than men were buried there. Perhaps different rules and customs applied to the women, the study authors speculate.

Reconstructing the family trees based on remains at Gurgy also revealed the absence of two generations. Children from the first generation at the site and adults from the last generation were missing. One explanation: the community may have moved to Gurgy from another place where their prematurely deceased children had been buried. Then, about 100 years later, the community left Gurgy, and the adults of the final generation were laid to rest elsewhere.

Researchers do not yet know of any settlements connected with these graves. Moreover, the dead found at Gurgy need not have lived in the same place. Each generation and family could have built its own hamlet. Still, the fact that they only settled in one place for a relatively short time is consistent with previous archaeological findings. Neolithic villages did not remain inhabited for long. Groups relocated, possibly as soils became depleted and forests were cut down.

“Everyday Folk” in the Neolithic

Whether the social mores of Gurgy applied to other Neolithic communities in Western Europe is unknown. The cemetery is much simpler in design than monumental burial sites from the same period. At Fleury-sur-Orne in the French region of Normandy, for example, archaeologists have uncovered burial mounds that appear to have been built for people of high status.

Gurgy, on the other hand, seems to have been a burial place for common people. “For once, we’re looking at everyday folk... and we’re finding they’re quite healthy, so that’s nice,” says Daniela Hofmann, an archaeologist at the University of Bergen in Norway, who did not participate in the new research. She adds that the new findings fit within a larger trend in archaeology—one that is shifting away from simply documenting past migration and movement and toward asking questions such as “How does it work?” “Who does it?” and “What does it mean?”

The phenomenon of women moving to join the family of their partner has occurred in several other locations and periods of prehistory. Investigations at the Links of Noltland site on Westray, one of Scotland’s Orkney Islands, have revealed similar patterns. Women came to the Orkney Islands from the island of Britain in the period of 2300 to 1500 B.C.E. And as a more ancient example, genetic analyses have revealed that women migrated 54,000 years ago in clans of Neandertals in the Altai Mountains in Central Asia.

Stockhammer and his colleagues reported a similar scenario in Germany in 2017. In the Lech Valley, near Augsburg in southern Germany, they came across graves as old as 2500 B.C.E. with the remains of women who originally came from the region of what is now Saxony-Anhalt, about 200 miles away. These movements, he argues, reveal that such women had an important place in their new community—one that archaeologists have only recently begun to appreciate. “We found that these women who came from afar brought a lot of knowledge with them,” Stockhammer says. “They were the ones who introduced metal technology to the early Bronze Age in the Lech Valley.”

At Gurgy, meanwhile, the Neolithic remains present other riddles. Catherine Frieman, an archaeologist at the Australian National University, who was not involved in the new Nature study, is examining the data for further analysis. She praises the new research as “a really perfect example of excellent collaboration” across specialties. Frieman also argues that much more can be explored at the site.

For instance, Frieman is intrigued by the presence of several children buried there without close relatives. And she notes that, given the complex decision-making around deaths and burials, it’s important to consider as many ideas as possible when interpreting findings at a funerary site. With this new research, Frieman says, “the book isn’t closed. If anything, they’ve opened it wider.”

This article originally appeared in Spektrum der Wissenschaft and was reproduced with permission.