Friday, December 1, 2023
The burial jar, found under the floor of a mountaintop citadel called La Almoloya in southeastern Spain, held a puzzle. Almost 1 meter in diameter, the vessel entombed a woman in her late 20s with a shining silver diadem on her forehead. She also had silver earplugs threaded through with silver hoops, an awl covered in silver—and a companion: a middle-age man laid to rest in the same jar with a fraction of her wealth. The pair were likely prominent members of a Bronze Age protostate called El Argar, which dominated much of the Iberian Peninsula from hilltop strongholds for nearly 700 years, beginning around 2200 B.C.E.
When archaeologists first excavated these tombs more than a century ago and found many women and men buried together in large jars, they assumed the pairs were royal couples. But given the wealth gap between women and men, later researchers concluded the jars held relatives who died years apart. They thought the women’s rich adornments suggested a matriarchy, where powerful women were buried and their sons or grandsons added to their tombs later.
Then, in 2019, a team of geneticists and archaeologists extracted DNA from the La Almoloya woman and her companion, along with 66 other people buried in pairs and singly in the walls and under floors of the hilltop houses. Rather than ancestors and descendants, the analysis showed, the couples were partners. In three cases, children were buried near their parents, who were buried together; one baby girl was the daughter of the woman and man buried in the palace. “We did not expect that,” says co-author Roberto Risch, an archaeologist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. “But [the couples] must have been contemporary, because they had offspring together.”
The results from La Almoloya, published last year, are part of a surge of new studies that are shifting the focus of ancient DNA research from genetic links between populations toward intimate, interpersonal connections. As the cost of DNA sequencing has plummeted, researchers have started to sequence genomes from many people at a site, revealing the structure of ancient communities. “It’s gotten so cheap that you can do whole cemeteries,” says computational biologist Harald Ringbauer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (EVA). Combined with more traditional archaeological data, this tsunami of ancient DNA promises unprecedented insights into prehistoric family practices, group identity, and power. “We can infer not only biological kinship, but social practices,” says geneticist Vanessa Villalba-Mouco of EVA. “We can understand marriages, maybe, in the past.”
Read more here.