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Uncovering the ultimate family tree

By Tristana Moore
BBC News, Goettingen

Manfred Huchthausen, a 58-year-old teacher, proudly showed me around his well-tended garden. "Isn't it beautiful?" he asked, pointing to the lush flower bed and immaculate lawn.

"But I know that you want to see the cave, don't you? I'll show you," he said, chuckling.

Manfred Huchthausen
Mr Huchthausen reckons he has the longest proven family tree in the world

The Lichtenstein Cave is a short drive away from Manfred's village, deep in the Harz mountains.

This is the spot where Manfred's relatives, dating back 3,000 years, were buried. The cave remained hidden from view until 1980, and it was only later, in 1993, that archaeologists discovered 40 Bronze Age skeletons.

The 3,000-year-old skeletons were in such good condition that anthropologists at the University of Goettingen managed to extract a sample of DNA. That was then matched to two men living nearby: Uwe Lange, a surveyor, and Manfred Huchthausen, a teacher. The two men have now become local celebrities.

"It's odd, standing here in the same area where my ancestors were buried. I felt really strange when I had the bones, the skull of my great-great-great grandfather dating back 120 generations, in my hands," said Manfred.

I didn't expect it at all, to end up being the direct descendant of the cavemen
Manfred Huchthausen

"I can't describe it, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. It wasn't exactly a nice feeling, but it was an incredible experience that I won't ever forget. The 3,000-year-old bones are so far removed from our lives today, and these 120 generations, that's so long ago," he said.

"We have no idea what happened during this time, we don't know what happened to these people," he added.

Unique pattern

At her lab at the University of Goettingen, Susanne Hummel, an anthropologist, has all the skeletons stored in a freezer.

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German Bronze Age skeletons dating back 3,000 years

As she carefully removed the plastic wrapping, she explained the research project.

"It is a unique discovery. While we were examining the prehistoric bones of the male individuals, we found genetic patterns which are unique," Dr Hummel said.

"We wanted to find out whether these genetic patterns were still present in the living population of this area, so we put an advert in the local paper and we asked people to take part in our project - 270 people came forward. We were very surprised that so many wanted to help us.

"The local residents had to give a sample of saliva. We extracted DNA from the saliva and looked for the genetic patterns on the Y chromosome. In the end, we found two men who have a very similar genetic pattern to the prehistoric one, and that genetic pattern is unique," she added.

The analysis showed that most of the bones were from the same family.

"I saw the advert in the paper and I thought it was an interesting idea," said Manfred.

"They took a sample of saliva using cotton wool buds, they put it in a plastic tube and then sealed it. The scientists also had their mouths covered to prevent any mixing of the DNA samples," he said.

"I didn't expect it at all, to end up being the direct descendant of the cavemen. It's amazing, especially as on that particular day I had such a dry mouth, I thought the DNA sample wouldn't work," he said.

Family tree

But do Uwe Lange and Manfred Huchthausen resemble one another?

Skull
Samples from the skull were compared with DNA from local people

"The two men don't really look alike," Dr Hummel said.

"Your appearance is determined by both parents, by the mother and father. We were investigating the Y chromosome, from father to son, in our project. It's a modern phenomenon that we move around… In the old days, people normally lived and stayed in the same place where they were born," she said.

And what about Manfred, does he think he looks like his Bronze Age ancestors?

"I definitely think the shape of the head is similar to the caveman, but after 3,000 years and 120 generations, I'm sure personalities have changed," Manfred said.

Manfred Huchthausen is planning to organise a Bronze Age feast and party in his village.

Claiming to have the longest proven family tree in the world, he says he is now determined to find out more about his ancestors.



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