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Social inequality, marriage habits and other clues to Bronze Age life revealed in new study

A fascinating new study chronicles the family history of European Bronze Age households and revealed the prevalence of surprising marriages, patterns of inheritance and the unexpected early emergence of social inequality in these farms – including the possible use of slaves or servants in Europe's social inequalities. well-established, as evidenced by early palace-like structures and the elaborate burials of high-status individuals, pointing to the presence of an elite warrior class. New research published today in Science, but concentrated its attention on something that was a little more relatable in terms of the general population and how they lived when Europe transitioned from Neolithic to Bronze Age lifestyle almost 5,000 years ago.

"The results of our study speak of another type of social inequality: a hierarchy within a household consisting of a rich family of high status and independent members who did not share this wealth and status," archaeologist Alissa Mittnik, the first author to the new study and a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena and the University of Tübingen, wrote in an email to Gizmodo.

Mittnik and her colleagues, including co-author Johannes Krause, also from the Max Planck Institute and the University of Tübingen, and Philipp Stockhammer of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet, reached these conclusions by studying the remains of over 1

00 individuals living in Germany's Lech Valley, located south of Augsburg, during the Late Neolithic to the Middle Bronze Age – a period that lasted from about 4,750 to 3,320 years ago. These individuals lived in farmhouses and were buried in nearby cemeteries, which enabled researchers to reconstruct the composition and social dynamics of individual households.

Analysis of skeletal remains revealed the presence of fairly prosperous "core" family members who lived with seemingly low-status individuals, suggested by the quality or lack of such grave goods. The high status family was closely related and found buried together with valuables such as weapons and ornamental jewelry. People of low status, on the other hand, were not biologically related to the nuclear family, and their bodies, while placed in the same cemetery, were not accompanied by grave goods according to the new research.

The nature of this unexpected social structure and obvious social inequality is not completely understood, but the researchers cautiously speculate that this is an early example of slavery or servitude. As the authors pointed out in the study, some households in ancient Greece and Rome included slaves. If the same arrangement existed among these Bronze Age Europeans – one large – it would push back the origin of this social difference back in time by about 1,500 years.

Unfortunately, the lack of written records makes it very difficult for archaeologists to distinguish family and household arrangements from so long ago. To overcome these limitations, Mittnik and her colleagues took a multidisciplinary approach with genetics, isotope data, and traditional archaeological and anthropological methods to reconstruct these prehistoric environments.

The new research provides a very focused snapshot in a particular geographical region, the Lech Valley, and the socio-economic and family dynamics of individual households over several generations.

"By focusing on a small region and combining different scientific methods – genetics to reconstruct family relationships, stable isotopes for detecting individual mobility, radio-colonization of all skeletons and a deeper archaeological assessment – we can get a much more detailed picture of how life was in these prehistoric societies and what social structures and rules existed, says Mittnik.

Incredibly, the researchers were able to reconstruct several family trees spanning four to five generations, distinguishing the geographical origins of individuals and determining the socio-economic status of specific family members. Taken together, the analysis revealed the existence of previously undiscovered social inequalities among these Bronze Age Europeans at the household level.

"This study gathers several parts of archaeological scientific approaches, which have emerged over the past decade, and applies them to a brief case study covering the late Neolithic / early Bronze Age transition," explained Katharina Rebay-Salisbury, an archaeologist from the Institute for Oriental and European Archeology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, in an email to Gizmodo. "It differs from many population-wide genome studies because it takes into account personal life histories of the past – their age, gender, history of mobility and how they were biologically related to others," said Rebay-Salisbury, who was not

The study "promotes our knowledge about how people lived together and how biological and social relationships correlate – or not, "she said. The researchers were able to identify several lines, all male, that "could be traced across generations, a group of" foreign "women of high status and some individuals of low status and low rank."

almost all homes that women were not related to men, and only male lines could be identified. The reason for this, according to the authors, has to do with a previously identified Bronze Age practice, known as patrilocality, where newlyweds moved in with their husbands' families. Through this custom, sons introduced new wives to households that were not biologically related, while daughters, when they reach maturity, left the household and brought their genes with them.

"One striking observation was that these family trees contained only daughters who died when they were between 15 and 17, consistent with a patrilocal family structure where women leave the family they grew up to join their household," Mittnik said.

The practice of patrilocality, in combination with female exogamy (when women marry outside their social group) also explains the presence of high status, unrelated women in households. These high-status women were probably wives and mothers of the nuclear family, all of whom came to Lechdalen outside the community – in some cases as far as hundreds of miles away, according to isotope data.

"This marriage network probably strengthened and maintained contacts over long distances and led to both cultural and genetic exchange," Mittnik told Gizmodo.

Rebay-Salisbury was intrigued by evidence pointing to patrilocality and female exogamy, saying that it presents a number of important questions that need to be answered.

"We don't know what form this took," she said. “Were women free to choose partners in another society, or were they forced to marry the partners the family chose for them? Or were the women brought into society through capture and raid? Some foreign women were buried with grave goods indicating high status, but none of their offspring have been genetically detected. This may be [the result] of low numbers, but it is strange – we assume that foreign women are brought into the communities to become mothers and start a family. Maybe we should think of alternative models, "suggested Rebay-Salisbury.

But these households also included a significant number of unrelated local individuals who were less prosperous economically, which was suggested by the large amount of excavations found next to their skeletons. [19659004] "We find two groups of individuals who are not related to the main families, but are buried in the same cemeteries: the first is women who grew up far from Lechdalen and are associated with rich grave goods, so probably have a high social status. "We only speculate about their role, but we assume they were not slaves," Mittnik said. "The other group is probably local individuals whose graves do not contain or only bad graves. For the other group, we speculate that they may be slaves or servants, because their graves indicate a lower status. From history we know of similar household forms in ancient Rome and Greece, d is the family or household included the domestic slaves. ”

Interestingly, the reconstructed family trees suggest the presence of inheritance and loss of high socioeconomic status from generation to generation. In a surprising result, the researchers found that adult brothers and their families were buried in the same cemetery. According to Mittnik, this suggests that inheritance not only benefited the eldest son, which was typical of some societies in historical times, but possibly that "brothers continued to live [in] and run the farm together."

Mittnik was careful to point out that her team's results can only be applied to the small region studied in the Lech Valley, but other "archaeological evidence suggests that this social system existed in a much wider region," she said.

Siân Halcrow, an associate of the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Otago, said the new results are "compelling."

"This document is really exciting to provide a detailed picture of kinship, social relationships and social" rankings "between people in prehistoric Europe," Halcrow, who was not involved in the new research, wrote in an email to Gizmodo. "This work is innovative, with a multifaceted approach that includes genomic data (to determine kinship), archaeological indicators of" status "(grave goods), chemical (isotopic) data to differentiate locals, and immigrants."

Richard Madgwick, a Cardiff University archaeologist, also not involved in the study, said the new article is new because researchers "integrated genomic data to interrupt some of the more complex aspects of social organization that are often unavailable with conventional methods. "[19659003] As I said, Madgwick was skeptical of how researchers discovered high status from low-state individuals us and said it was "perhaps a somewhat uncritical use of grave goods as a power of attorney – this is a bit simplistic, but inevitably tempting in the absence of other data," Madgwick wrote to Gizmodo. "However, the old words that" the dead did not bury themselves "are still true," he added. Good point.

Regarding the speculated presence of slaves or servants, and comparisons with ancient Greece and Rome, Madgwick said that the conclusions about status and relatives are compelling, but he believes that "drawing parallels with very different classical social structures can stretch the evidence. , and I would be hesitant to suggest the presence of slaves, although this is only a fleeting note in the newspaper. "

Halcrow said that interpreting slaves was" problematic. "

" I don't think we can know if the people who had "low status" defined by their serious wealth were slaves or servants, "she told Gizmodo. "The authors have similarities between the early Bronze Age households and later historical households such as the Greek oikos and Roman families where there is evidence of slaves living with their families. However, these compounds must be made with caution. Given the large social changes and thousands of years in time difference between the prehistoric periods studied and the historical periods, I find this association problematic. "

Rebay-Salisbury said that the word" slave "triggers" powerful emotional responses and is "today most commonly understood in a colonial context and in connection with race," but this is not how slaves are understood in Greco-Roman antiquity, she. In these cultures, "all slaves were involuntary and owned by another person, but their roles ranged from nurtured family members, such as teachers and wet nurses, to abused and routinely abused workers in silver mines, who rarely survived more than a few years," Rebay explained. Salisbury. "I would prefer the more neutral description as low status, independent individual, which provides the opportunity to further explore what this type of social position was about, rather than misunderstand a specific meaning."

Trying to discern the complexity of family dynamics with so little data, and at a distance of nearly 5,000 years, is, to say the least, extremely difficult. Today we carry our own perceptions of families, households and what it means to be a low or high status individual, but who is to say what these perceptions meant to Europeans living during the Bronze Age? It is clear that much work still needs to be done to convert speculation into concrete facts. But this is good, especially considering the many research paths that the new document is likely to inspire.

"The Bronze Age is amazing! HereThere is so much more to explore – we come from a very simple picture of prehistory to really understanding the social dynamics of the past," Rebay-Salisbury said. "And this teaches us a lot about the present, because we can use prehistory to reflect on issues that are important today, such as gender equality, migration and social difference."

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