Saturday, November 02, 2019

The Evolution of Social Inequality in Bronze Age Europe

In this 4,000 year old burial site in southern Germany, the headdress of this woman indicates a local tradition of high status burial; but an isotopic analysis of her teeth shows that she grew up in a land hundreds of miles away.

This ornate pin from the grave of another woman indicates her high social status.

These are two illustrations of some of the evidence gathered from Bronze Age gravesites in the Lech River Valley in southern Germany, dating to between about 2800 and 1700BC.  In a remarkable paper recently published online by the journal Science, researchers have combined evidence from DNA, artifacts, chemical analysis of teeth, and radiocarbon dating from prehistoric burial sites in this area of Germany to reconstruct the social life of 104 Bronze Age individuals found in 13 farmstead cemeteries (Callaway 2019; Gibbons 2019; Mittnik et al. 2019).

The patterns in the graves suggested that these individuals lived in a stratified society with complex households composed of three groups of people.  In the first group, there were closely related individuals with all the grave goods of wealth and status--men buried with elaborate weapons (daggers, axes, chisels, and arrow heads), women buried with elaborate bodily adornments (copper headdresses, bronze leg rings, and copper pins).  These seemed to be the members of a core family with wealth and status inherited within the family over generations.  Strangely, there were no burials of adult daughters, suggesting that daughters had migrated out of the group after reaching maturity.

In the second group, there were unrelated women who had migrated from distant locations and were buried with the grave goods indicating high status and wealth.  This appeared to be evidence for a system of female exogamy and patrilocal residence: adolescent females would leave their natal group and migrate to a distant group to find a mate, while adolescent males would remain with their patrilineal kin group.  Wealthy, high-status families were exchanging their daughters over long distances.

In the third group, there were local, low-status individuals who were buried near the graves of the core family.  Presumably, these were either servants, farm hands, or slaves who were considered members of the household.

Amazingly, this Bronze Age household structure of unequal ranking could show the deep history of the household system manifested much later in the oikos of ancient Greece and the familia of ancient Rome, in which a kin-related family lived with their slaves.

This shows the same pattern in the evolutionary origins of inequality that has come up in previous posts (here, here, and here).  Among nomadic foragers, some individuals could exercise informal leadership, but anyone who tried to exercise dominance over others would be checked by stubborn resistance.  Among sedentary, "complex" foragers, however, some inequality could emerge, including slavery, as was true for some of the indigenous people of the New World, such as the hunting-fishing-gathering cultures of the Northwest Coast of North America (Donald 1997; Santos-Granero 2009).  Once people settled into farming communities--as in Bronze Age Europe--there was even more stratified inequality with slavery.  

The key point here is that while status striving is inherent in our evolved human nature, and there will always be some individuals who want dominance over others, unequal ranking cannot be great as long as there are few valuable resources that can be distributing unequally.


Callaway, Ewen. 2019. "Bronze Age DNA Hints at Roots of Social Inequality." Nature 574: 304-305.

Donald, Leland. 1997. Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gibbons, Ann. 2019. "Bronze Age Inequality and Family Life Revealed in Powerful Study." Science 366: 168.

Mittnik, Alissa, et al. 2019. "Kinship-Based Social Inequality in Bronze Age Europe." Science 10.1126/science.aax6219.

Santos-Granero, Fernando. 2009. Vital Enemies: Slavery, Predation, and the Amerindian Political Economy of Life. Austin: University of Texas Press.  

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