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Hereditary inequality dates back to the Stone Age

28 May 2012

New study finds earliest evidence yet of differential access to land 

Hereditary inequality began over 7,000 years ago in the early Neolithic era, with new evidence showing that farmers buried with tools had access to better land than those buried without.

The research, carried out by archaeologists from the Universities of Cardiff, Bristol and Oxford, is published in PNAS today [28 May].

By studying more than 300 human skeletons from sites across central Europe, an international team of colleagues led by Professor Alasdair Whittle from Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council uncovered evidence of differential land use among the first farmers of Europe, called the Neolithic period.

By analyzing the strontium isotopes from the teeth of skeletons, the geographical origins of individuals can be suggested.  Professor R. Alexander Bentley (University of Bristol), who carried out the strontium analysis, found that men buried with distinctive Neolithic stone adzes (tools used for smoothing or carving wood, probably in building the large timber longhouses for which this Early Neolithic culture is famous) had less variable isotope signatures than men buried without adzes.  This suggests those buried with adzes had access to closer – and probably better – land than those buried without.

Professor Bentley said: “The men buried with adzes appear to have lived on food grown in areas of loess, the fertile and productive soil favoured by early farmers.  This indicates they had consistent access to preferred farming areas.”

The strontium isotope analysis also revealed that early Neolithic women were more likely than men to have originated from areas outside those where their bodies were found.  This is a strong indication of patrilocality, a male-centred kinship system where females move to reside in the location of the males when they marry.

This new evidence from the skeletons is consistent with other archaeological, genetic, anthropological and even linguistic evidence for patrilocality in Neolithic Europe.  The results have implications for genetic modelling of how human populations expanded in the Neolithic, for which sex-biased mobility patterns and status differences are increasing seen as crucial.

Professor Alasdair Whittle said: “Our results are providing incredible detail about the lives of these earliest farmers, helping us to understand the ways in which they restructured their society at the beginning of farming.”   

As the strontium value in tooth enamel is set in childhood, yet it is adult males who were buried with the adzes, it seems that being born to a family with access to the loess soil helped young men to gain prestige.

Dr. Penny Bickle, Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion, who worked on the archaeological evidence for the project, said “Archaeologists have long thought that the change from hunting and gathering to farming led to more diversity in landscape use and with Professor Bentley’s results we are now able to clearly demonstrate this. Community diversity seems to have happened very early on in the transition to agriculture and probably occurred through inheritance and kinship systems rather than individuals competing for wealth.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

Paper

‘Community differentiation and kinship among Europe’s first farmers’ by R. Alexander Bentley, Penny Bickle, Linda Fibiger, Geoff M. Nowell, Christopher W. Dale, Robert E.M. Hedges, Julie Hamilton, Joachim Wahl, Michael Francken, Gisela Grupe, Eva Lenneis, Maria Teschler-Nicola, Rose-Marie Arbogast, Daniela Hofmann and Alasdair Whittle in PNAS