Men, Women, and Inequality in the Neolithic

Posted on June 3, 2012

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The rich dude gets the hot chick even in prehistory.

Thus a perceptive reader commenting on Wired Science’s coverage of newly published research on the roots of inequality in Neolithic Europe sums up the whole story.

More soberly, the BBC News emphasizes the contingency of the new findings in its story, titled Cardiff uni claims evidence of Stone Age ‘inequality’.

You can be forgiven if this story does not ring a bell, since as of today, it has not gotten the widespread coverage in US media that one would normally expect of an archaeological science story making big claims, based on publication in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Not that the new findings lack contemporary relevance; as Michael Balter wrote in the AAAS-sponsored blog Science Now,

Even the most democratic societies are rife with social and economic inequalities, as the current tension between the poorer “99%” and the richest “1%” vividly illustrates. But just how early in human events such social hierarchies became entrenched has been a matter of debate. A new study of skeletons from prehistoric farming communities across Europe suggests that hereditary inequality was an early feature, going back more than 7000 years ago.

(This is what Wired reposted, under the original headline Occupy the Neolithic, drawing the reader comment above.)

The new research analyzed the ratios of different isotopes of strontium recovered from teeth enamel in over 300 burials in European archaeological sites dating between 5400 and 4900 BC– a period called the Linearbandkeramik (usually just abbreviated LBK, named for the geometric banded decoration of typical pottery used).

The core question that is addressed in PNAS, by a team led by Alexander Bentley of the University of Bristol is, interestingly, not framed either in terms of inequality or hierarchy– gendered or otherwise. Here’s their abstract:

Community differentiation is a fundamental topic of the social sciences, and its prehistoric origins in Europe are typically assumed to lie among the complex, densely populated societies that developed millennia after their Neolithic predecessors. Here we present the earliest, statistically significant evidence for such differentiation among the first farmers of Neolithic Europe. By using strontium isotopic data from more than 300 early Neolithic human skeletons, we find significantly less variance in geographic signatures among males than we find among females, and less variance among burials with ground stone adzes than burials without such adzes. From this, in context with other available evidence, we infer differential land use in early Neolithic central Europe within a patrilocal kinship system.

Where these researchers talk cautiously about “community differentiation”, specifically in land use and mobility, and infer patrilocal residence (which, any anthropologist will tell you, is distinct from patrilineality, patriarchy, or gender hierarchy), the press coverage goes right to the more resonant inequality and hierarchy– the 1% vs. the 99% of Balter’s post.

Bentley makes the connection between differential access to land and inequality more explicit in statements in a University of Bristol press release:

“Our results, along with archaeobotanical studies that indicate the earliest farmers of Neolithic Germany had a system of land tenure, suggest that the origins of differential access to land can be traced back to an early part of the Neolithic era…

“It seems the Neolithic era introduced heritable property (land and livestock) into Europe and that wealth inequality got underway when this happened.”

As Bentley and his colleagues emphasize in their research article, current understanding of the LBK people already suggests this was the period when land first became an object of possession and control in Europe. It has even been suggested that conflict between the newly arrived LBK people and residents already in place, hunter-gatherers following Mesolithic traditions, grew to open violence. Other researchers question this. Re-examination of fragmented skeletal remains from some LBK sites led to their reinterpretation as evidence of rituals, not warfare.

What seems unquestionable, however, is that the new LBK people used the landscape very differently. Very creative research that traced the harder-to-see mobile Mesolithic occupants of Europe at the time of the first LBK settlements found that

people of the LBK settled in exactly those areas only marginally exploited by hunter–gatherers and not in the intermediate regions with similar physiography but more intense hunter–gatherer exploitation.

Bart Vanmonfort, author of this article, concludes that

During the 6th Millennium cal BC, major parts of the loess region are exploited by a low density of hunter–gatherers. The LBK communities settle at arrival in locations fitting their preferred physical characteristics, but void of hunter–gatherer activity… in general the arrival of the LBK did not attract hunter–gatherer hunting activity. Their presence rather restrained native activity to regions located farther away from the newly constructed settlements…

It is the preference for regions of loess by the LBK farmers, which Vanmonfort shows were mostly not of interest to earlier residents, that underpins the new research. Stable residence in childhood on loess lands, the best for agriculture, is interpreted as evidence for control of those better soils, providing a basis for some groups to produce greater wealth than others.

Due to variation in geological sources of soils, strontium isotope ratios vary across the landscape. Strontium is incorporated in the bones and teeth through diet. Teeth in particular are useful, because unlike bone– which constantly is being remodeled, giving a picture of recent location of the person– teeth enamel is formed in childhood and retains the isotope ratios of the time it was formed. So, teeth give us a way to understand where a person grew up.

The current study begins with burials from seven different cemeteries of early LBK settlements. It evaluates the strontium isotope ratios of individuals in the cemeteries. Rather than try to match strontium isotope ratios to soil ratios, which for a variety of reasons would be difficult or theoretically questionable, it compares individuals in each cemetery. If everyone buried in a particular cemetery had similar access to loess land, or to food grown on loess land, there should be no statistically significant differences within the cemetery.

Bentley and his colleagues divided the population first by sex, since there have been suggestions that LBK farmers were patrilineal. They further subdivided the male population into two groups for analysis: men buried with stone adzes, and those without these tools.

Those males buried with adzes showed less variability in strontium isotope ratios than the other males. The males with adzes almost all had strontium ratios suggesting they grew up on the best agricultural soils. The females tested showed greater diversity in strontium ratios than the males overall.

The researchers conclude that males with the most access to the expensive adzes formed a core group that also had the least variable diet (in childhood, remember) suggesting their families were situated in stable positions and able to exploit the best agricultural land.

Nothing much here about gender, right? That comes from comparing the males as a group to the females as a group.

As the BBC story puts it:

strontium isotope analysis also reveals that early Neolithic women were more likely than men to have originated from areas outside those where their bodies were found.

Researchers think “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.”

OK; but there are a few things that should give us pause here.

Bentley and colleagues describe their rationale for analyzing the burials with adzes separately:

Found more often with males, this labor-intensive artifact is one of the most distinctive of the LBK. Fashioned from raw stone often exchanged over hundreds of kilometers and requiring a long preparation process, LBK adzes seem to have conveyed social, or even status, differences.

Notice that phrase “more often with males”. Julian Thomas, in his book Time, Culture, and Identity, has this to say about LBK adzes and sex:

At Sonderhausen, adzes were found exclusively with male burials, while at Aiterhofen, adzes were only predominately in male graves. However, at Nitra adzes were found with a number of female burials. (p. 112)

In other words, while there may be a tendency at the level of the entire continent, at the level of the individual village community, there was variability between villages.

The same is true in the new study by Bentley and colleagues.

At five of the seven sites (including Nitra, where Thomas notes adzes were found with a number of female burials) there was greater variability in strontium isotope ratios among females than among males, suggesting that the men of these communities enjoyed more consistent geographic location during their childhood, when their teeth enamel was forming.

At Aiterhofen, the trend was the same, but it did not reach the level of statistical significance– that is, while females showed evidence of more diverse origins, reflected in strontium isotope diversity, this was not as strongly a sex-related pattern. Combined with Thomas’ remarks that at Aiterhofen adzes were “only predominately” found with males, this suggests something distinctive was going on there.

Finally, at one site– Ensisheim– Bentley and colleagues found that variation in strontium isotopes was higher among males than among females.

If we accept that these patterns of mobility are proxies for kinship, this means not all LBK villages in this study are adequately described as patrilocal. Indeed, the data showing that some males were more mobile also isn’t explained well by a simple patrilocal model.

So much for kinship. What about inequality– the “rich dude” of the comment with which I opened?

The researchers used a proxy for wealth: inclusion of adzes in burials. They limit their analysis to males found with adzes, even though about 5% of those buried with adzes were females.

Of 62 adze burials, they tell us, only one had strontium isotope ratios that suggested a difference from the group of individuals who grew up on loess soils.

The 59 males with adzes, we are told, had significantly less variable strontium isotope ratios than the males buried without adzes.

What we do not get is any discussion of the strontium isotope ratios of the three women buried with adzes (indicated by red filled circles in their Figure 2 and Figure 3A). Visual inspection suggests these women are not strikingly different from the group of males considered to have relatively consistent isotope signatures indicative of privileged access to loess land, since they occur scattered among or just adjacent to the filled blue triangles that stand for the males buried with adzes.

This actually is entirely consistent with the basic argument that some families had privileged access to the best agricultural land. Families are, after all, composed of offspring of both sexes. In any study tracking early diet of families with privileged access to the best farmland, I would expect there to be boys and girls who benefited from their family’s privileged status.

As young men and women went through life, I would expect some of both to be accorded recognition, even if they were the exceptions to common practice. To the extent that adzes were symbolically charged, and not just someone’s personal property, we should not be surprised to find them deployed with people of different sexes than is common, and should not collapse those distinctive persons into a category that we take for granted as natural or primary.

Archaeologists struggle with a legacy of nineteenth and twentieth century anthropological thought that took “cultures” as the focus of analysis. Even though we actually know that human organization takes place at the level of populations, which can be of different scales (networks of families or villages, in this case), that legacy encourages us to think of an entire regional distribution of people as having some set of shared characteristics, the “culture”. Among the things we tend to assume cultures share are kinship “systems”, even though in anthropology, we long ago recognized that the systems were ours– and that kinship results from practices patterned over generations, often if not always with some degree of variability.

Variability in life in LBK villages, and in the strategies employed by individual LBK families, is wonderfully evident in new studies like this. The question is, can we reshape our old concepts to let us see what life was like outside the prisms of our traditional models?

Or to put it another way: will we always simply confirm that “the rich dude gets the hot chick even in prehistory“?