It’s a well-established fact that humans had hierarchical social structures rife with inequality by the time of the Bronze Age — a period that stretches from 2200 BCE to 800 BCE when humans learned how to cast bronze. A new study, however, goes a step further, zooming into the lives of ancient Bronze Age humans, showing that social inequality was a fact of life not just in the community but also at the level of individual households.
Philipp Stockhammer from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich, along with Johannes Krause and Alissa Mittnik from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena and the University of Tübingen, excavated Bronze Age farms and their associated graveyards in the south of Augsburg, Germany.
The researchers carefully analyzed how the various burials were positioned and adorned with goods. In order to establish kinship between buried individuals, the researchers analyzed the genomes from the bones of more than 100 skeletons. This allowed them to establish both social status and family trees for each individual.
One of the most interesting findings had to do with marital practices. The findings suggest that more than 4,000 years ago, most of the women in the Lech valley were not local. This was also a time when humans started manufacturing goods that required raw materials from abroad, spurring the need for extensive trade networks. Marriages between individuals from different, relatively distant communities may have fostered these networks and enabled knowledge transfer.
The women from abroad were high status, judged by their burial goods, and lived together with biologically related families of equal higher status. Many other locals were buried in the same cemeteries but were clearly less well-off individuals. These individuals were associated with single homesteads, suggesting that they may have been servants or even slaves. Researchers cannot say for sure but the excavations show that social inequality was already part of household structures in that place and time.
“Wealth was correlated with either biological kinship or foreign origin. The nuclear family passed on their property and status over generations. But at every farm we also found poorly equipped people of local origin,” says Philipp Stockhammer, professor of prehistoric archaeology at LMU Munich.
“Unfortunately, we cannot say whether these individuals were servants and maids or perhaps even enslaved,” says Alissa Mittnik. “What is certain is that through the male lines, the farmsteads were passed from generation to generation and this system was stable over at least 700 years, across the transition from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age. The Lech Valley shows how early social inequality within individual households can be found.”
Such social structures were commonplace in ancient Greece and Rome, but the Lech Valley hierarchies are 1,500 years older. “This shows how long the history of social inequality in family structures goes back in time,” Stockhammer added.
It’s amazing, though, how much scientists are now able to learn about the lives of ancient people. The dead may be silent but their genes and customs still have many stories to speak.
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