Ancient European households combined the rich and poor

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Families working the land in ancient Europe also cultivated
social inequality. A social pecking order consisting of “haves” and “have-nots”
living in the same household appeared among Bronze Age farmers by around 4,000
years ago, a study suggests.

Ancient DNA, objects placed in graves and chemical analyses
of teeth indicate that each farming household in southern Germany’s Lech Valley
included wealthy individuals related biologically through paternal lines; a
biologically unrelated, high-status woman from outside the area; and local, biologically
unrelated folks of little means.

Foreign women probably married into male-run households that
passed on wealth and status to descendants, say evolutionary geneticist Alissa
Mittnik of Harvard Medical School and colleagues. Poor, low-status members of
those households may
have been servants, slaves or menial laborers
, the researchers suggest
online October 10 in Science.

Researchers have long assumed that central Europe’s Bronze
Age
(SN: 11/15/17), which ran
from about 4,200 to 2,800 years ago, witnessed rapid social change that prompted
a split between wealthy, well-connected households and poor, struggling ones, says
archaeologist and study coauthor Philipp Stockhammer.

“We were absolutely surprised to find that social inequality
was a phenomenon within households rather than between households,” says
Stockhammer, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in
Jena, Germany.

Members of these social units identified with their
households regardless of their biological roots or economic standing, the
researchers suspect. Lech Valley farmers did not live in villages. Instead, a
small group of houses and other structures, comprising a household, was usually
situated near a cemetery. Households managed individual tracts of land located
within a 20-kilometer-long stretch of fertile soil.

Bronze Age farms foreshadowed family arrangements starting
nearly 1,000 years later in ancient Greece and Rome, Stockhammer says.
Households in those societies mixed a nuclear family with other biological
relatives and slaves.

Mittnik’s group extracted DNA from the skeletons of 118
people buried in five Lech Valley cemeteries dating to between 4,750 and 3,300
years ago. An analysis of biological relationships among 104 individuals
enabled a reconstruction of six family trees spanning four to five generations.

A specific household arrangement appeared nearly 4,200 years ago, shortly after the Bronze Age began. Of six pedigrees reconstructed by the team, three spanned at least four generations. Of 10 pairs of parents and offspring, only male offspring were detected. All except one was an adult. Daughters apparently left the farms where they had grown up by young adulthood. Mothers had originally come from at least 350 kilometers away. Different forms of strontium and oxygen in tooth enamel, which provide clues to where a person was born and raised, denoted mothers’ foreign origins.

Weapons and ornate jewelry were found in the graves of
closely related family members and women who had come from afar. Graves of
genetically unrelated household members, who had local origins, contained few
artifacts and those items were of limited value.

Bronze Age dagger
Prominent men interred at Bronze Age cemeteries in southern Germany were accompanied by objects signaling their wealth and status, such as this dagger.K. Massy

Lech Valley farms were passed from generation to generation
over at least 700 years, the researchers conclude. “It’s difficult to say
whether these inheritance rules were new or the continuation of an older system
of wealth inheritance in male lines,” Stockhammer says.

Mittnik’s team provides “a unique case study” of wealth
inequality and inheritance during southern Germany’s Bronze Age, says
archaeologist Amy Bogaard of the University of Oxford. If unrelated, low-status
household members were slaves, they also may have been inherited across generations,
she suggests.

But the study lacks evidence of slavery, contends
anthropologist Bettina Arnold of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. It’s
more likely that some male lineages had more children and stronger strategic
alliances than others, enabling successful lines to accumulate wealth and
workers, Arnold says. Overall, the Lech Valley sample is too small to reach any
general conclusions about Bronze Age social practices in central Europe, she
adds.

Still, Mittnik’s group demonstrates an early start for
powerful male lineages that used foreign contacts to find wives, Arnold says.
That practice may eventually have led to social systems mandating unequal
treatment for men and women, she suspects.

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