DNA Extracted From Ancient ‘Irish Pharaoh’ May Reveal Royal Incest

New analysis of elite man buried in Stone Age monument suggests he was the product of either a brother-sister or parent-child pairing

Newgrange
One of the interior passages of the 5,000-year-old Irish megalithic tomb of Newgrange. In this photo, sunlight enters the monument's main chamber at dawn on the winter solstice. Ken Williams

The grass-covered, circular burial mound of Newgrange measures more than 250 feet across. Located in County Meath, Ireland, the enormous tomb—pierced by a series of deep passages and channels that allowed visitors to enter its recesses for ritual purposes—was constructed more than 5,000 years ago using stones and boulders weighing an estimated 200,000 metric tons. Among Newgrange’s most unique features is a 62-foot opening in its roof that allows sunlight to stream into the structure’s main chamber at sunrise on the winter solstice. In short, prehistoric people had to be fairly special to end up entombed in this megalithic monument.

A new analysis of ancient DNA recovered from Newgrange burials suggests those interred at the site may have belonged to an elite ruling class that enjoyed godlike status similar to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, reports James Gorman for the New York Times.

Evidence for the potential existence of Irish god-kings stems from the genes of a man whose remains were found at the center of the giant stone tomb. As detailed in the journal Nature, DNA extracted from this presumably powerful individual contained so many duplicate genes that his parents would had to have been either siblings or a parent and child.

Incest between siblings or parents and children is taboo in nearly every culture throughout recorded history, but as David Dobbs pointed out for National Geographic in 2010, a number of exceptions have been made for members of royal families in Egypt, Inca Peru, Hawaii, central Africa, Mexico and Thailand. Though such incestuous relationships were frowned upon in Europe, marrying royal cousins was accepted and often encouraged.

DNA Extracted From Ancient 'Irish Pharaoh' May Reveal Royal Incest
An aerial view of Newgrange on a misty morning Ken Williams

Newgrange’s sheer size suggests those who commissioned it wielded immense power in the agrarian society of Stone Age Ireland. The 43,000-square-foot mound is part of a megalithic necropolis called Bru na Boinne, which also includes the nearby burial monuments of Knowth and Dowth.

As study author Daniel Bradley, a geneticist at Trinity College in Dublin, tells the Times, “Newgrange is the apogee.”

The grandeur of these monuments has often deepened the mysteries surrounding their construction. In an attempt to learn more about the people who built such imposing structures, Bradley and his co-authors extracted DNA from the remains of 44 people buried in 6,600- to 4,500-year-old tombs and graves across Ireland, reports Bruce Bower for Science News.

Of all the samples, only the man whose bones were laid to rest in the heart of Newgrange showed the genetic markers of extreme inbreeding.

“It’s an extreme of what elites do—marrying within your kin group allows you to keep power within your ‘clan,’” lead author Lara Cassidy, also a geneticist at Trinity College, tells Paul Rincon of BBC News. “But elites also break lots of rules, to separate themselves from the rest of the population . ... It’s a bit chicken and egg: By breaking these rules you probably make yourself seem even more divine.”

The Newgrange elite’s family history is comparable to that of ancient Egyptian king Tutankhamun, who was likely the son of a brother and sister. He could, therefore, be described as an “Irish pharaoh,” says Bradley to the Times.

Another notable discovery centered on a male infant buried in a well-appointed, 5,500-year-old tomb. He carried the genetic markers of Down syndrome and may represent the oldest known instance of the genetic disorder.

“He was interred within a sacred place; he was breastfed before his death,” Cassidy tells BBC News. “It’s an interesting glimpse at what the social values of this society might be.”