Kinship and social organization in Copper Age Europe. A cross-disciplinary analysis of archaeology, DNA, isotopes, and anthropology from two Bell Beaker cemeteries

PLoS One. 2020 Nov 16;15(11):e0241278. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0241278. eCollection 2020.


We present a high-resolution cross-disciplinary analysis of kinship structure and social institutions in two Late Copper Age Bell Beaker culture cemeteries of South Germany containing 24 and 18 burials, of which 34 provided genetic information. By combining archaeological, anthropological, genetic and isotopic evidence we are able to document the internal kinship and residency structure of the cemeteries and the socially organizing principles of these local communities. The buried individuals represent four to six generations of two family groups, one nuclear family at the Alburg cemetery, and one seemingly more extended at Irlbach. While likely monogamous, they practiced exogamy, as six out of eight non-locals are women. Maternal genetic diversity is high with 23 different mitochondrial haplotypes from 34 individuals, whereas all males belong to one single Y-chromosome haplogroup without any detectable contribution from Y-chromosomes typical of the farmers who had been the sole inhabitants of the region hundreds of years before. This provides evidence for the society being patrilocal, perhaps as a way of protecting property among the male line, while in-marriage from many different places secured social and political networks and prevented inbreeding. We also find evidence that the communities practiced selection for which of their children (aged 0-14 years) received a proper burial, as buried juveniles were in all but one case boys, suggesting the priority of young males in the cemeteries. This is plausibly linked to the exchange of foster children as part of an expansionist kinship system which is well attested from later Indo-European-speaking cultural groups.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology*
  • Archaeology*
  • Cemeteries*
  • DNA, Ancient / analysis*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics
  • Female
  • Geography
  • Germany
  • Haplotypes / genetics
  • Hierarchy, Social*
  • Humans
  • Isotope Labeling*
  • Male
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Principal Component Analysis
  • Sex Determination Analysis
  • Time Factors


  • DNA, Ancient
  • DNA, Mitochondrial

Grants and funding

FB, RH, KR-B, VH: Fritz-Thyssen-Stiftung project RR8322. KK, K-G S: Swedish Riksbanken grant M16-0455:1. VHeyd: ERC Advanced grant 788616. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.