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Ancient DNA Points to Male-Dominated Megalith Monuments at Neolithic Normandy Site

NEW YORK – Ancient DNA analyses on a burial site called Fleury-sur-Orne in what is now Normandy, France, supports the notion that the region was home to a society that appeared to be led by male elites during the Middle Neolithic period, with related males remaining in the region and incoming females from outside groups.

"Ancient DNA, now available for the entire group of Fleury-sur-Orne, significantly increases our understanding of the site," co-first and co-corresponding authors Maïté Rivollat and Aline Thomas and their colleagues wrote, emphasizing that all but one of the individuals characterized from lavish funerary monuments were male, consistent with "an overarching patrilineal system."

Rivollat is affiliated with the University of Bordeaux, the Max Planck Institute for Science of Human History, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, while Thomas is affiliated with the University of Paris Museum of Humanity.

For their study, published in PNAS on Thursday, the researchers used targeted in-solution capture to profile the mitochondrial genome, Y chromosome, and some 1.2 million SNPs genome-wide in samples representing 14 Neolithic individuals from elaborate "megalith" burial monuments — data that complements genetic profiles for Fleury-sur-Orne individuals that were included in a broader analysis of a dozen Neolithic and Mesolithic sites in France and Germany that was reported in Science Advances in 2020.

"[W]e present genome-wide data for the complete Neolithic site of Fleury-sur-Orne, which adds six new individuals to the previously published data, resulting in a total of 15 of the 19 Neolithic individuals discovered at the site who yielded ancient DNA results," the authors wrote. "The four remaining individuals could not be sampled due to very poor skeletal preservation."

When they compared the new sequences to those in available SNP data sets and to sequences from nearly 600 more ancient DNA samples and almost 2,600 genetically profiled samples from present-day populations, the researchers documented western European Neolithic ancestry in most of the individuals found at the elite burial monuments from the earliest time points considered.

In more recent samples, going back some 6,000 years, the team saw distinct ancestry from beyond the initial western Neolithic group, reflected in three elite individuals profiled from the megalith monuments.

"By integrating genomic and archaeological data, we provide new insights into the Neolithic French monumental site of Fleury-sur-Orne in Normandy, where a group of selected individuals was buried in impressively long monuments," the authors explained. "We hypothesize that different, unrelated families or clans used the site over several centuries."

From the primarily male representation at the elite burial monuments, combined with parental genetic marker and run-of-homozygosity clues, the researchers speculated that the Neolithic society was primarily patrilineal — a notion that was supported by the presence of a father-son pair buried at one of the monuments.

Even so, the authors noted that "a single female buried with an arrowhead, otherwise considered a symbol of power of the male elite of the Cerny culture, questions a strictly biological sex bias in the burial rites of this otherwise 'masculine' monumental cemetery," and cautioned that the "specific selection of individuals buried at the site cannot be considered a representative snapshot of the greater community at the time."