Genetic findings from Newgrange

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Today’s news article was written by Siobhan Ball, a writer, and archivist living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Siobhan has degrees in information management and medieval history, making her lots of fun at parties. She’s written for Autostraddle, Broadly, and Diva, and is currently working on a book on the supernatural women of Ireland for Wolfenhowle Press.

Editorial NoteThe article below involves sexual themes and describes a sexual assault.  

COUNTY MEATH, Ireland – Recent genetic analysis from remains interred at Newgrange, the largest of Ireland’s great passage tombs built over 5000 years ago, shows that one of the few buried there (identified as NG10) was the product of an incestuous union – something many academics believe indicates the presence of a deified ruling class like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt.

Geneticists, Lara Cassidy and Daniel Bradley, both of Trinity College Dublin, along with Thomas Kador, an archaeologist at University College London, co-authored the paper published in Nature that analyzed the DNA extracted from NG10 as having enough identical genetic sequence to be a product of incest.

Newgrange – Image credit: Conorohara – WikiCommons

Using newer methods of analyzing DNA that look for the presence of identical genetic sequences, researchers discovered that the parents of the individual in question must have been either siblings or parent and child themselves. Known as first-degree incest, these kinds of unions are almost universally taboo in human societies.

Exemptions to that taboo almost always involve a ruling class who set themselves so far above the rest of society that the normal human rules don’t apply, with their flouting of those rules serving as a symbol of their elevated status.

“I believe we’re seeing a similar social dynamic at play among colonists of Neolithic Ireland,” said Cassidy.

Most often this involves the creation of a deified or otherwise sacred bloodline, one that has to be preserved by preventing or limiting marriages with outsiders even if that requires pairings which would normally be considered incestuous.

Those in favor of this theory argue that as the man in question was buried in Newgrange he must have been a high-status person and therefore the product of a fully sanctioned union.

Given as supporting evidence of this theory are the results from the genetic testing of the other remains found in passage tombs across Ireland. Though the vast majority had degraded to a point only that partial genomes could be retrieved, enough genetic similarities were still found between these bodies to suggest a closely related ruling class controlled the entire island during this period, providing the kind of environment where these sacred, incestuous bloodlines can occur.

However, marriages within a wider kin group don’t necessarily indicate the acceptance of first-degree incest, and many cultures that condone marriage between cousins still hold parent-child or sibling unions as taboo.

Similarly, it’s possible that far from being the product of a formal, sanctioned union, the individual’s true parentage was concealed from the rest of their society, as often happens with cases of incest even now.

“To go from [NG10] to saying these are proto-state societies where you have a godlike elite is pushing it a bit far,” says University of Manchester archaeologist Julian Thomas. “It’s one guy.”

Based on this alone the conclusion that Neolithic Ireland had an incestuous ruling class with a mystical or even divine bloodline would seem tenuous – however, the structure of Newgrange itself coupled with a piece of local folklore suggests it may be the correct one after all.

Newgrange’s construction is such that the main passage leading into the tomb is perfectly aligned with the sunrise during the Winter Solstice, and though we don’t know the precise reason why it does suggest some sort of connection between those buried there and the return or rising of the sun.

The Metrical Dindshenchas, an eleventh-century Irish manuscript recording place names and the stories behind them, tells the story of King Bressal and the naming of the nearby smaller passage tomb Dowth, whose passage is aligned with the sunset on the evening of the Winter Solstice.

In that story, a murrain, or plague, had overtaken the land, and in an attempt to stop it Bressal called on his subjects to build a tower to the heavens (the passage tomb known as Dowth). They were only willing to work for only one day. So the king’s sister, who was a powerful sorceress, cast a spell to stop the sun in its tracks to keep the day from coming to an end and ensure the work was done. At some point during the building process, Bressal became consumed with lust for his sister and raped her. His violence caused the spell to end allowing the sun to set.  The workers left with the tower unfinished.

The name Dowth (Dubhadh), meaning Darkness, was given to the place by the wronged princess, commemorating everything that happened there.

Dowth Passage Tomb – Image credit: Raemond Carolan – CC BY-SA 4.0

This folk memory of incest, albeit connected to a different tomb, seems to suggest it was remembered as something not just wrong but spiritually harmful to the entire community, robbing the princess of her powers and stopping their attempt to end the plague driving them to starvation.

However, orally transmitted myths mutate in the telling and if this is in fact a folk memory about the rulers of the passage tombs then it was one already five thousand years old before anyone attempted to write it down. In those intervening years successive waves of migration and conversion to Christianity had occurred, resulting in a culture that viewed incest as an unequivocal spiritual evil.

It is highly likely that the details and moral implications of the story had mutated into something unrecognizable by the time it was recorded, and that at its core is a memory of a divine or priestly king’s who engaged in incestuous unions and were in some way connected to the life cycle of the sun.

It is also possible, given its attachment to the tomb aligned with the setting rather than the rising sun, that the moral implications of the written myth are more closely aligned with the original story. Perhaps it even began as a recounting of the conception of the individual buried in Newgrange, with his burial in a place of honor indicating that while his society didn’t condone incest it also didn’t punish those born as a result either.

Ultimately we have no way of knowing which theory is correct. All we do know for sure is that a relatively small kin group was buried in the passage tombs across Ireland and that at least one individual, interred in the largest and presumably most high status of those tombs, was the product of first-degree incest.

Examining other passage tombs, like those found in the Orkney Islands, in Wales and even France may offer further clues as to whether there really was an elite, ruling class of some type.

“The question is whether this arose in Ireland or whether they were importing existing social structures into the island,” Cassidy says. “It’s going to be very exciting to see if this is a pattern we see in other areas.”