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Ancient DNA reveals social inequality in bronze age Europe households

October 10, 2019

Providing a clearer picture of intra-household inequality in ancient times, new research reports that prehistoric German households near the Lech Valley consisted of a high-status core family and unrelated low-status individuals. This type of social structure, different than what's been thought to have existed during the studied periods, is similar to that seen later in Classic Greece and Rome - where kin-related families shared a household with their slaves. The results suggest a deeper antiquity for intra-household inequality than what's been thought. While the artifacts unearthed by archaeologists offer invaluable clues into the lives of past peoples, they are limited in their ability to inform on the more ephemeral aspects of human culture. Hence, piecing together the many non-material facets of prehistoric society, such as family structure or inequality, represents a significant challenge. However, ancient DNA offers a new way to approach these elusive archaeological questions. In central Europe, most archaeogenetic research has been used to explain patterns at continental-scales and across great spans of history. To illuminate details about the lives of individuals at regional scales, Alissa Mittnik and colleagues used ancient DNA to explore the kinship and social organization in people who lived among the small farmsteads of what is now southern Germany's Lech River Valley between the Late Neolithic (2750 BCE) to the Middle Stone Age (1300 BCE). In concert with traditional archaeological and isotope data, Mittnik et al. analyzed genome-wide data from 104 individuals recovered from farmstead-related cemeteries. They identified a complex family structure and a kinship-based social hierarchy previously unrecognized in prehistory. In nearly all the households, the females were not related to the males, having left their homes farther afield to marry. Some nonlocal women arrived to the Lech Valley from beyond the pre-Alpine lowlands, the data show. Studies of grave "goods" like weapons also reveal that wealth and status were inherited by offspring from their parents, suggesting that social status was inherited rather than acquired during these individuals' lifetimes, the authors say.
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

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