BIAA Projects Help Reveal Diverse Stone Age Traditions of Kinship through Ancient DNA


13 April 2021

Two BIAA-funded research projects, at Boncuklu Höyük and Çatalhöyük, have provided vital ancient genome data combined with burial location evidence demonstrating that kinship traditions of ancient Anatolian civilisations went beyond genetic relations. In some villages, houses were used for burials of biological family members. But in other communities, many children and babies with no apparent biological kinship were buried within the same buildings. The results, published recently in Current Biology, emphasise the remarkable diversity of kinship types in ancient human societies.

Neolithic house at Boncuklu Höyük. Photo: Douglas Baird.

The first villagers in history adopted a sedentary lifestyle roughly 12,000 years ago. These people buried their dead, young and old, within and around their houses while living in them. Although subfloor burial tradition is well-known, the underlying social relations among these co-burials have remained a mystery. Many assumed these burials were biological family members, while others suggested that households and their burials represented more complex social groupings, organised through non-biological forms of kinship. Füsun Özer, professor at Hacettepe University and senior co-author, concludes that “both sides may have been right, at least in the case of the Neolithic Middle East”. 

Çatalhöyük Human Remains Laboratory. Photo: Scott D. Haddow

The team analysed DNA from dozens of skeletons excavated from Neolithic Anatolian villages. The study generated 22 new genomes from two Central Anatolian sites: Aşıklı Höyük and Çatalhöyük, alongside 37 published genomes from other sites: Boncuklu, Barcın and Tepecik-Çiftlik. The researchers then assessed biological relationships among burials excavated in the same or neighbouring buildings. 

Family Ties among Neolithic House Burials

A burial from Boncuklu yielding ancient DNA in the study. Photo: Douglas Baird.

In the earliest villages studied, Aşıklı Höyük and Boncuklu Höyük (about 10,000 years ago), co-buried individuals frequently included siblings and parent-offspring pairs. That said, not all co-buried individuals had relatives buried in the same structures. Professor Douglas Baird from University of Liverpool, who leads the Boncuklu excavation, notes the telling case of a perinatal baby in Boncuklu buried together with a woman with whom she had no biological connection, a good indicator of social dimensions of kinship in death as well as life.

Boncuklu was initially located in 2001 during the course of the Konya Plain Regional Survey, and the BIAA has funded excavations under the directorship of Douglas Baird and the University of Liverpool since 2006. Please find out more about the site on our website.

A Role for Social Kinship in Neolithic Communities

Çatalhöyük infant (Sk30006). Photo: Scott D. Haddow

A more surprising result was found in two of the later villages, Çatalhöyük and Barcın.  In both sites, buildings with numerous burials of children, infants, and babies demonstrated that biological relationships were markedly rare. “There was no evidence for these children being members of biological families, nor of extended families”, says Christopher Knüsel of the University of Bordeaux, a senior co-author who was also part of the Çatalhöyük Human Remains Team.

Çatalhöyük was initially excavated by BIAA Assistant Director James Mellaart. The Institute has since funded the more recent Çatalhöyük Research Project directed by Professor Ian Hodder and published its latest research, including Peopling the Landscape of Çatalhöyük: Reports from the 2009-2017 Seasons available for preorder now. This volume summarises work on the skeletal remains recovered from the site and analytical research on isotopes and aDNA.

Gender Dimension

Aşıklı Höyük old female (Sk133 photo 2). Photo: Güneş Duru, Aşıklı Höyük Project Archive

The study also takes a step towards understanding changing gender roles in these Neolithic communities. Previous studies of cemeteries in Late Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe showed that patrilocal traditions were salient in these societies, with adult female burials consistently identified as outsiders. However, in Aşıklı Höyük and Boncuklu Höyük, adult women are found co-buried with siblings in the same buildings. 

Beyond Family Ties

The researchers note that the question of how these earliest village societies were organised still needs deeper study. “But there is now better reason to suspect that the organising principles of these societies went well beyond simple blood relations”, says Scott Haddow from the University of Copenhagen, a senior co-author of the study. 

The study involved an international team of 57 scientists from 11 countries. The work was co-led by researchers at METU, Hacettepe University, Stockholm University, İstanbul University, Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, University of Liverpool, University of Nevada Reno, University of Copenhagen, Koc University, The Netherlands Institute in Turkey, and University of Bordeaux. Find out more and read the article here.

METU Ancient DNA and Population Genetics Lab.