Ancient European homes had 'invisible' social complexities, bones reveal

DNA and isotopic analysis of people who lived in Germany some 4,000 years ago show unexpected connections across Bronze Age farmsteads.

Saturday, October 12, 2019,
By Megan Gannon
While archaeologists see the beginnings of social inequality in ‘have‘ and ‘have not‘ Bronze Age burials, ...
While archaeologists see the beginnings of social inequality in ‘have‘ and ‘have not‘ Bronze Age burials, new scientific analyses are now helping to illuminate genetic and geographical differences in household populations.
Photograph by Schellhorn, ullstein image/Getty

The first hints of social inequality in Europe emerged during the Bronze Age, with the appearance of tombs for an elite few packed with luxury goods. It's easy to imagine haves and have-nots spread across a population, but a novel analysis of ancient burials from southern Germany suggests that wealth disparities were even apparent inside individual households, with the rich and poor living under the same roof.

A research team recently turned their attention to prehistoric cemeteries in the Lech Valley in Bavaria. By 4,000 years ago, the valley was full of sprawling Bronze Age farmsteads rather than crowded, fortified villages. Each household occupied an individual hamlet with a few buildings for living and storage and a small graveyard.

The team analysed more than 100 burials discovered by archaeologists on these farmsteads, which ranged from the Neolithic period (nearly 5,000 years ago), through the Middle Bronze Age (about 3,300 years ago).

Using ancient DNA data, the researchers reconstructed genetic family trees for the households. With isotopic analysis of the skeletons, scientists could understand where individuals were raised and how much they travelled during their lifetimes. The researchers also considered how the dead were buried, using grave goods as indicative of the wealth of the person during their lifetime.

A few intriguing patterns emerged from the results, says Alissa Mittnik, a geneticist at the Harvard Medical School and a co-author of the study published today in the journal Science. Each farmstead cemetery tended to be occupied by a core family that stuck around for four or five generations. Family members tended to be buried alongside each other and to have the most signs of wealth, such as ornaments and weapons, in their graves. The property appears to have been passed through the male lineage, as the only parent-child relationships observed among the burials were between parents and their sons.

About 60 percent of the women buried on the Lech Valley farmsteads were classified as “nonlocal,” as they lacked genetic ties to all other individuals in the sample, and their isotopic signatures suggested they came to the Lech Valley from various regions that were up to hundreds of miles away. These “nonlocal” women, however, were buried with the same type of grave goods as the local high-status women.

"We're still wondering about the identity of and the role of these women in these communities," Mittnik says. "One of the theories we have is that these might be high-status women from further away who might have married into these families." No adult daughters of the core-family men were found at the sites, suggesting that the women who grew up on these farmsteads may have moved away to marry, too. That pattern fits with previous findings Mittnik and her colleagues published in 2017.

Meanwhile, the individuals buried without rich grave goods tended to be local people who were genetically unrelated to the core families of the households.

"We interpret these individuals as possibly being servants or maybe even slaves," Mittnik says, based on their lack of riches for the afterlife compared to the others buried in the cemeteries. "That gives the first glimpse of a type of socially complex household in prehistory. We see a type of social inequality happening here that wasn't really visible before." They imagine that the social structure inside these homes could have been similar to households 1,500 years later in ancient Greece and Rome, when domestic servants and slaves were common.

"These samples come from a time when there are no written texts, so we are really getting an enhanced picture of the community dynamics beyond what the archaeological data could tell us alone," says Krishna Veeramah, a geneticist at Stony Brook University in New York, who was not involved in the study but has used ancient DNA to study Bavarian populations from later periods. "By using this fine-scale approach they can now start to use ancient DNA to drill down into what is actually happening at the community level in these ancient cultures."

Michael Smith, an archaeologist at Arizona State University who has studied historic inequality in other parts of the world, says it's not necessarily surprising that people beyond the immediate family would have lived in a single household and cautioned against assuming these outsiders were slaves or servants. Nonetheless, he was excited by the results.

"The idea of possibly using the DNA evidence to look at kinship relations and inequality on a local scale I think has a lot of promise, and it'd be great if we had more cases where you could do this kind of analysis," says Smith.

For now, the results may have generated more questions than answers. The researchers failed to identify any offspring of the nonlocal women, for example. If these women were indeed foreign brides, what happened to their children? That's one mystery Mittnik and her colleagues have yet to untangle, although they speculate that children may have been used in some kind of exchange.

"These children might have been sent back to the [mothers'] original communities possibly as a form of strengthening trade connections or marital networks or cultural networks over large distances," she speculates.

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