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European Inequality traced back to the Neolithic-age

Inequality may have spread alongside agriculture more than 7,000 years ago

The spread of farming in Europe provided a foundation for the population growth and colonization that’s followed for the last 7,000 years – beginning in about 5,500 BC – and only took about 500 years to spread from the Hungarian plains to the Paris Basin.

Now, after analyzing the teeth from more than 300 Neolithic-age skeletons, a team of researchers from across the continent have found links between access to prime farming lands – along with their fruits – and hereditary inequality.

“Usually, when you start talking about inequality or inherited wealth, you’re talking about the bronze age,” Alexander Bentley, study co-author and archaeologist at the University of Bristol, told  “This really pushes that back quite a bit earlier.”

The team found those people buried with a prestigious Neolithic tool, known as an adze, had substantially less variation in the ratio of the element strontium – it incorporates into the enamel of teeth, like calcium – compared to people buried without one. 

The tool was used for many things – most of the adzes that have been recovered show a lot of wear – including tilling soil and milling the wood used to build their longhouses.

“These were like a do-it-all tool for these guys, but woodworking was probably the primary use of them,” Bentley said.

They also found that those with higher than expected variation in strontium ratio levels, almost exclusively, were buried without an adze – of the 41 samples, only one was buried with the stone tool.

“We think that’s because there’s a particular kind of soil type those farmers preferred, called loess soils,” Bentley said. 

For Neolithic farmers, it was land that drained water well, was easy to work and because loess soils are found primarily along the river valleys of central Europe, it was fertile land that was great for growing crops.

Considering how varied strontium signatures can be, the incredibly narrow variation seen in skeletons with the Neolithic tool implies their diets were sourced, almost exclusively, from a narrow region that’s closely related to the loess soil regions.

“Individuals who weren’t buried with adzes were probably farming further afield or obtained their food further away, from slightly less preferred soils,” Bentley said.  “It’s a real hint at a system of inequality that surely got magnified over the generations.”

“It wasn’t necessarily highly pronounced in the early Neolithic but we think that we’re finding the seeds of it – no pun intended,” he added.

The trends are sort of like the equivalent to public health trends.  They say a lot about the group as a whole, but not any individual specifically.

“Even if we couldn’t see exactly where they’re from, we could see that certain groups were tightly clustered in terms of the land they had access to,” Bentley said.

The researchers also found a similar difference when they compared genders.  Men, on average had substantially less variation in strontium ratios than women.  They also found that approximately eight of every ten individuals with higher than expected ratios of strontium were female.

“The simplest explanation is that the marriage system was patrilocal – where men stay in their home village and women immigrate,” Bentley said. “It’s really cool because lots of different lines of evidence are coming together about the male centred nature of Neolithic society in Europe,” Bentley said. 

Archaeologists, anthropologists and geneticists who’ve studied the sites – and even linguists, who’ve studied the languages at this critical point in history – have found evidence for the patrilocal system too.

Strontium’s an interesting element to study.  It’s found in rocks and as it leeches into the soil, it travels up the food chain very consistently.  The researchers measure the ratio of two forms, strontium-87 and strontium-86.

“Because humans have very consistent habits from year-to-year – especially agricultural communities – you actually get fairly group specific signatures from strontium isotope signatures, from different groups of humans, which we access through the skeletons,” Bentley said. 

The seven Neolithic sites they visited are known as Linearbandkeramik communities because of a unique pottery design that can be found at all sites.  They spanned as far east as Nitra, in Slovakia to as far west as Ensisheim, in France – including the world’s oldest known LBK cemetery at Vedrovice, in the Czech Republic.

The results were published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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