Recently, the results of our DNA analysis from the early Bronze Age site Schleinbach came in. We have been working on Schleinbach a bit longer than intended. It is an exciting site, as it includes single graves, a double and multiple burial, several individuals buried or deposited in former storage pits, and can tell us a lot about social relations and social stratification the Bronze Age. Many individuals have healed or perimortal fractures that suggest interpersonal violence.
We sent samples from two of the most interesting contexts to the Legal Medicine Department in Innsbruck, to test for maternal relationships between the buried individuals. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother. Because it is present in many more copies per cell than nuclear DNA, mtDNA is more likely to be preserved in archaeological samples. Normally, offspring inherit an identical copy of the mother’s mtDNA, but random changes sometimes occur, which are then passed down the generations. Specific mutations characterize a haplogroup, a genetic group of people who share a common ancestor. MtDNA only shows a part of a person’s genetic history – the maternal linage.
The double burial 30/31 includes two male individuals who died at the ages of 27-30 and 30-35 years. Both had very similar perimortem fractures of the skull, which likely led to their death, and they were placed very closely together in a single grave. The bones of the feet overlap and the pelvic bones almost touch, giving rise to the suspicion that they were bound or wrapped together after death. It is unclear what happened to the men – perhaps they were executed by their own community, perhaps they died raiding a neighbouring village and were sent home dead and tied together, perhaps they died defending their own home during a surprise attack – we do not know. We only know they met a similar violent fate.
MtDNA analysis showed that the individuals did not only share the same haplogroup, the mitrochondrial haplotype was also identical, i.e. they share the same specific DNA sequences inherited together. The ‘brothers in arms’ were closely maternally related; perhaps they were indeed brothers, although we cannot exclude they were cousins or otherwise related.
Four individuals – an adult man and three children aged 3-4, 8-9 and 12 – were found deposited in a former storage pit at Schleinbach. Again, perimortal traumata suggest that at least one of the individuals met a gruesome fate, but it looks like all four died in quick succession. Only the two younger children, however, share the same mitotype and perhaps had the same mother. The 12-year-old was not their maternal sibling, and the adult man had his own haplogroup. It is thinkable that he was the father of the children.
In total, we had four different mitochondrial haplogroups in this sample – and of course the first thing to do is google them! The 12-year-old from the pit turns out to have J1c2 – a haplogroup shared with the famous King Richard III. He was king of England from 1483 to 1485, when he died in the Battle of Bosworth. Immortalized by William Shakespeare as a villain, his skeletal remains were rediscovered under a concrete car park in Leicester in 2012. Having lived in Leicester for five years, I got overly excited by the match.
Is it possible that we found Richard III’s maternal ancestor in a Bronze Age grave in Austria? There are many generations between them. Our 12-year-old lived between 1906 and 1743 cal BC, as radiocarbon dating has revealed, and assuming 30 years for a generation, this would be about 110 generations between them. Many grand-grand-grand-grand-grands to write.
Turi King from the University of Leicester, who led the DNA analysis of Richard III, and Walther Parson found out Richard III belongs to a relatively uncommon subclade J1c2c3, and there isn’t a perfect match between the individuals. The two were definitely related, but perhaps not as closely as to be of any significance. The most recent common ancestor for our Bronze Age individual and Richard III might have lived 7800 to 11800 years ago – this is the assumed age of the branch J1c2. It is estimated that today, about 17 million people worldwide share J1c2 (Behar et al 2012, Logan and Brinkman 2017).
Behar, Doron M., M. van Oven, S. Rosset, M. Metspalu, E.-L. Loogväli, Nuno M. Silva, T. Kivisild, A. Torroni, and R. Villems. 2012. Reassessment of the Human Mitochondrial DNA Tree from its Root. The American Journal of Human Genetics 90, 4: 675-684.
Buckley, R., M. Morris, J. Appleby, T. King, D. O’Sullivan, and L. Foxhall. 2013. ‘The king in the car park’: new light on the death and burial of Richard III in the Grey Friars church, Leicester, in 1485. Antiquity 87: 519–538.
King, T. E., G. G. Fortes, P. Balaresque, M. G. Thomas, D. Balding, P. M. Delser, R. Neumann, W. Parson, M. Knapp, S. Walsh, L. Tonasso, J. Holt, M. Kayser, J. Appleby, P. Forster, D. Ekserdjian, M. Hofreiter, and K. Schürer. 2014. Identification of the remains of King Richard III. Nature Communications 5: 5631.
Logan, I. S., and D. N. Brinkman. 2017. King Richard III and his mitochondrial DNA haplogroup J1c2c3. The Journal of Genealogy and Family History 1, 1: 1-14.
Rebay-Salisbury, K. 2018. “Vielversprechende Ansätze und kleine Irrwege: die Interpretationsgeschichte frühbronzezeitlicher Bestattungen am Beispiel Schleinbach,” in F. Pieler and P. Trebsche (eds) Beiträge zum Tag der Niederösterreichischen Landesarchäologie 2018. 45-56. Asparn: Niederösterreichisches Landesmuseum.