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Inequality between the haves and have-nots dates back to the Stone Age

Date: 29/05/2012

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, using strontium isotope analysis, was carried out by archaeologists from the Universities of Bristol, Cardiff and Oxford and is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on the 28 May.

By studying more than 300 human skeletons from sites across central Europe, an international team of colleagues led by Professor Alasdair Whittle (Cardiff University) 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 increasingly 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), 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.

Notes to editors:

  • AHRC Media contact: Jake Gilmore, Communications Manager, Tel: 01793 416021, Email: j.gilmore@ahrc.ac.uk
  • The first farmers of Central Europe: diversity in LBK lifeways: This AHRC-funded project has investigated diversity in the lifeways of the early European Neolithic LBK culture (Linearbandkeramik culture, c. 5500-4900 cal BC) using a combination of stable isotope, osteological and archaeological analyses.

    The main aims of the project are to examine patterns of human and animal diet, health, movement and mobility in the setting of the earliest farming culture in central Europe. The team have used a combination of stable isotope traces in human and animal bone and tooth enamel, and osteological and archaeological analysis of human remains from selected settlements and cemeteries. On this basis, they seek to investigate the nature, internal diversity and development of LBK communities and their economies and identities, using their results in relation to the many other studies in the published literature.
  • 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 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) 28 May 2012.
  • The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC): Each year, the AHRC provides approximately £98 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from languages and law, archaeology and English literature to design and creative and performing arts. In any one year, the AHRC makes hundreds of research awards ranging from individual fellowships to major collaborative projects as well as over 1,000 studentship awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.


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