A major new study has revealed remarkable secrets about Ireland's first farmers, those who built the great megalithic monuments of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.
An international team of archaeologists and genetecists has revealed that an adult male buried in the chamber of the Newgrange passage-tomb around 5,200 years ago might have been among a "ruling social elite". The study was led by Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and the results are published in the journal Nature.
Analysis of the fragmented bone remains of the man, which were excavated by Prof. Michael O'Kelly during the 1960s, reveals him to be the offspring of parents who were very closely related. His parents were first-degree relatives, and possibly even brother and sister.
"Such unions are a near-universal taboo for biological and cultural reasons, though given his privileged burial within the chamber of the Newgrange monument, the researchers suggest his parentage was very likely to have been socially sanctioned," the National Monuments Service of Ireland said.
Other ruling dynasties from the archaeological world include the Inca god-kings and Egyptian pharaohs, though the Irish Neolithic period is much earlier than those civilizations, said the NMS.
In its findings, the TCD research group noted that socially sanctioned mating of this nature is very rare, and in other studies around the world has been shown to exist almost exclusively among politico-religious elites, specifically attached to royal families who are headed by god-kings.
Fascinatingly, such unions might have been hinted at in the mythology of the monuments. The Dindshenchas story about Dowth, contained in the 12th century Book of Leinster, records that incest was committed between the king, Bresal Bó-Dibad, and his sister, causing a sudden darkness to descend upon the land. It was this darkness, according to the tale, that gave Dowth its name, which is from Irish Dubhadh, darkness or darkening.
The science team also revealed a web of distant familial relations between the man buried at Newgrange and other individuals buried at Neolithic passage tombs across ancient Ireland, namely at Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in Co. Sligo, and the tomb at Millin Bay in Co. Down.
The genome survey led by TCD stretched over two millennia and unearthed other unexpected results, according to NMS. Within the oldest known burial structure on the island built around 3,800BC, Poulnabrone portal tomb in the Burren, the earliest yet diagnosed case of Down Syndrome was discovered in a male infant buried there. The remains were excavated by Dr Ann Lynch of the National Monuments Service in the 1980’s as part of urgent conservation work at the spectacular burial monument. Isotope analyses of this infant by TCD showed a dietary signature of breastfeeding. In combination with being afforded burial in the chamber, an honour afforded to very few, the researchers suggest this provides an indication of care and that visible difference was no barrier to prestige burial.
Additionally, genetic analysis showed that the monument builders were early farmers who migrated to Ireland and replaced the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who preceded them. The scientific evidence suggests that there was a swamping of the earlier population rather than any forced displacement or extermination.
Lara Cassidy, assistant professor at TCD, told the BBC: "We all inherit two copies of the genome, one from our mother and one from our father; well, this individual's copies were extremely similar, a tell-tale sign of close inbreeding. In fact, our analyses allowed us to confirm that his parents were first-degree relatives."
The man's remains were laid in a richly decorated recess in the inner chamber.
"The prestige of the burial makes this very likely a socially sanctioned union and speaks of a hierarchy so extreme that the only partners worthy of the elite were family members, Prof Dan Bradley, also from Trinity College, told the BBC.
"It seems what we have here is a powerful extended kin-group, who had access to elite burial sites in many regions of the island for at least half a millennium," explained Dr Cassidy.
The new study might also answer another of the mysteries of Newgrange, or at least go some way towards answering it. Prof. Michael O'Kelly, who excavated the monument in the 1960s and 1970s, found human remains but in perhaps not the quantity one might have expected an enormous monument to contain. The remains of just five individuals were found, and it has often been speculated that perhaps other human remains had been removed from the chamber during the two centures or so after the passage was reopened in 1699 when visitors came to the site unchecked by any authorities.
Perhaps there were only a small number of people buried in the tomb's interior. This would make sense in light of the new findings which suggest an extreme familial heirarchy. "It's an extreme of what elites do – marrying within your kin group allows you to keep power within your 'clan'," Lara Cassidy said.
Perhaps only the ruling clan was buried at Newgrange?
I devoted episode #98 of Live Irish Myths, which occurred on 17th June 2020 when the new study was released, to discussing its implications. Watch below:
A follow-up episode, #102, dealt with the Nature paper in much more detail. Watch it below:
Island of the Setting Sun, the best-selling book by Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore, first published in 2006, is being republished in a special 2020 edition with new foreword.
In this reissued edition of their best-selling book, Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore present evidence suggesting the builders of monuments such as Newgrange and its Boyne Valley counterparts were adept astronomers, skilled engineers and capable surveyors. Their huge monuments are memorials in stone and earth, commemorating their creators’ perceived unity with the cosmos and enshrining a belief system which resulted from a synthesis of science and spirituality.
Enter the ‘Ancient Sites’ section of this blog for a fascinating and wide-ranging exploration of the megalithic and sacred sites of Ireland. Find out all about the Stone Age and prehistoric ruins and learn more about the possible functions and alignments of these sites. Visit the great temples of Brú na Bóinne, the Hill of Tara, the ancient cairns of Loughcrew among many others.
Explore the ancient myths, legends and folklore of Ireland and their meaning. Read the epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, or the place-name myths in the Dindshenchas. Learn about how the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians came to Ireland and how the early texts describe various invasions of prehistoric Éire. Hear about Fionn and the Fianna, and discover how some myths might contain information about astronomy and the stars.
There is no doubt that the ancient megalith builders had a substantial knowledge of the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars through the heavens. Learn more about just how complex and impressive this knowledge was. There is evidence that the people of the Neolithic knew about the 19-year Metonic cycle of the moon, as well as being able to predict eclipses.