The Ugly Incest Secret Behind History’s Royal Families squib

DEA / W. BUSS

In Newgrange, Ireland, there is a 5,000-year-old Neolithic-era monument, carved with mysterious symbols, marking the elaborate tomb of an important ancient man. These kinds of tombs are found all over Ireland but the one in Newgrange is the most famous and, most think, belonged to a king. Now, new research into the man’s genetics reveals that that his parents were likely to have been siblings. The discovery suggests that those who ruled Ireland thousands of years ago were practitioners of incest, one of human society’s most consistent taboos. This would place them among a cluster of famous dynasties that preferred to shun social norms and reproduce with close relatives.

The study, published last week in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, was produced by a team of scientists at Trinity College Dublin led by geneticist Lara Cassidy. The study examined the remains of 42 individuals buried at Neolithic sites throughout the country. The purpose of the study was to try to understand the social hierarchies and structures that were at work at the time. Passage tombs—earth-covered burial chamber(s) accessible only via narrow passageways—like the one at Newgrange, took a great deal of labor to build. Understanding for whom these tombs were constructed is one step towards understanding the social world of Neolithic Ireland.

The analysis of the genetic information from the sample at Newgrange (which you can view online and was built ca. 3200 B.C.) revealed that the parents of the king buried there were first-degree relatives. Cassidy explained to Tom Metcalfe at Livescience that “We inherit one copy of the genome of our mother, and one from our father, and we can compare these two copies of the genome in this individual,” and that in this case “what we saw was that they were extremely similar.” Other relatives of the king were discovered buried in passage tombs 150 km to the west of Newgrange.

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