Some early European farmers seem to have been much better off than others
Chelsea Budd/Umeå University
A wealth gap may have existed far earlier than we thought, providing insight into the lives of some of Europe’s earliest farmers.
Chelsea Budd at Umeå University in Sweden and her colleagues analysed the 6600-year-old grave sites of the Osłonki community in Poland, to try to determine whether wealth inequality existed in these ancient societies.
The team first found that a quarter of the population was buried with expensive copper beads, pendants and headbands. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that these people were richer during their lifetimes.
“The items could simply have been a performance by the surviving family members,” says Budd. “It could be used to mitigate the processes surrounding death or even to promote their own social status.”
Budd and her colleagues therefore analysed the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in bones from the graves, which can give an insight into the quality of diet during life. “The human skeleton is an independent archive,” says Budd. “It can’t be influenced.”
The team examined the bones of 30 people who lived within 200 years of each other, looking at 29 adults – aged between 18 and 45 – and one child. About 80 per cent of the bones found in the area belonged to cattle, and the group analysed those too.
Those buried with copper had a distinctive balance of carbon isotope ratios in their bones. The researchers found that this unusual balance was also seen in a subset of cattle bones found in the area, which suggests that the people buried with copper ate meat from these animals.
Budd’s team speculate that the cattle in question may have grazed on productive, brightly lit open pastures, because plants growing in such pastures would have similarly enriched carbon isotope values. This isotopic balance isn’t seen in plants that grow in less productive tree-shaded pastures. This suggests people buried with copper had access to lands and livestock that their counterparts didn’t.
Budd speculates that this could be linked to different levels of land ownership and wealth. Moreover, because these isotopic shifts were found in multiple generations and farming land is often inherited, Budd suggests the wealth gap may have been passed down.
“We’ve never found such inequalities in this period before,” she says.
“Rich graves do not necessarily mean rich people in any time period,” says Mark Pearce at the University of Nottingham, UK. “But this method provides an excellent proxy way of demonstrating the existence of social differences.”
Journal reference: Antiquity, DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2020.102
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