"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Hereditary inequality may date to Stone Age

May 29, 2012
Courtesy of the University of Bristol
and World Science staff

He­red­i­tary in­equal­ity be­gan over 7,000 years ago in the Stone Age, say re­search­ers who have found that farm­ers bur­ied with tools had ac­cess to bet­ter land than oth­ers.

The signs of in­equal­ity that emerged in the new re­search are less ob­vi­ous than ev­i­dence that has been un­co­vered from lat­er times—when clear trap­pings of rel­a­tive wealth ap­pear in some graves more than oth­ers, the sci­en­tists said. But it shows the seeds of this pro­cess were sown ear­li­er, they con­tend.

The grave of a man bur­ied with an adze.
(Cred­it: BDA-Neu­ge­bauer)

The stu­dy, by ar­chae­o­lo­gists from the Uni­vers­i­ties of Bris­tol, Car­diff and Ox­ford in the U.K., is pub­lished this week in the on­line edi­tion of the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tio­n­al Aca­de­my of Sci­en­ces. The sci­en­tists an­a­lyzed more than 300 skele­tons from sites across cen­tral Eu­rope. They ex­am­ined the stron­ti­um iso­tope lev­els, a form of chem­i­cal anal­y­sis, in the bones to de­ter­mine their places of or­i­gin.

The re­sults in­di­cat­ed that men bur­ied with dis­tinc­tive stone adzes—tools for smooth­ing or carv­ing wood—had less var­i­a­ble iso­tope lev­els, sug­gest­ing they had ac­cess to clos­er, and probably bet­ter, land than oth­er men. 

“The men bur­ied with adzes ap­pear to have lived on food grown in ar­eas of lo­ess, the fer­tile and pro­duc­tive soil fa­vored by early farm­ers. This in­di­cates they had con­sist­ent ac­cess to pre­ferred farm­ing ar­eas,” said ar­chae­o­lo­gist Al­ex Bent­ley of the Uni­vers­ity of Bris­tol, one of the in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

A stone adze, a tool for smooth­ing or carv­ing wood. (Im­age by Dr Brit­ta Ram­min­ger)

The time pe­ri­od un­der in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion was an early part of the Ne­o­lith­ic era, which in turn is the third and lat­est part of that vast span of time called the Stone Age. The Ne­o­lith­ic saw the be­gin­nings of ag­ri­cul­ture; it ended as met­al tools and weapons came in­to use and as Egyp­tian dy­nas­tic civ­il­iz­a­tion began.

The anal­y­sis by Bent­ley and col­leagues al­so found that early Ne­o­lith­ic wom­en were more likely than men to have or­i­ginated from ar­eas out­side those where their bod­ies were found, the sci­en­tists re­ported. This is a strong in­dica­t­ion of pat­ri­lo­cal­ity, a male-centred kin­ship sys­tem where fe­males move to live with the males when they mar­ry, they said.

The ev­i­dence is con­sist­ent with oth­er ar­chae­o­log­i­cal, ge­net­ic, an­thro­po­log­i­cal and even lin­guis­tic ev­i­dence for pat­ri­lo­cal­ity in Ne­o­lith­ic Eu­rope, they added. “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,” Bent­ley said.

This ev­i­dence is dis­tinct from “lat­er pre­his­to­ry, when in­equal­ity and in­ter­genera­t­ional wealth trans­fers are more clearly ev­i­denced in buri­als and ma­te­ri­al cul­ture,” he added. “It seems the Ne­o­lith­ic era in­tro­duced her­it­a­ble prop­er­ty (land and live­stock) in­to Eu­rope and that wealth in­equal­ity got un­der­way when this hap­pened. Af­ter that, of course, there was no look­ing back: through the Bronze Age, Iron Age and In­dus­t­ri­al era wealth in­equal­ity in­creased, but the ‘seeds’ of in­equal­ity were sown way back in the Ne­o­lith­ic.”

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Hereditary inequality began over 7,000 years ago in the Stone Age, say researchers who found that farmers buried with tools had access to better land than those buried without. Such signs of inequality are less obvious than evidence that has been uncovered from later times—when clear trappings of relative wealth appear in some graves rather than others, the scientists said. But it shows the seeds of this process were sown earlier, they contend. The study, by archaeologists from the Universities of Bristol, Cardiff and Oxford in the U.K., is published this week in the online edition of the research pnas. The scientists analyzed more than 300 skeletons from sites across central Europe. They examined the strontium isotope levels, a form of chemical analysis, in the bones to determine their places of origin. The results indicated that men buried with distinctive stone adzes—tools for smoothing or carving wood—had less variable isotope levels, suggesting they had access to closer, and probably better, land than other men. “The men buried with adzes appear to have lived on food grown in areas of loess, the fertile and productive soil favoured by early farmers. This indicates they had consistent access to preferred farming areas,” said archaeologist Alex Bentley of the University of Bristol, one of the investigators. The time period under investigation was an early part of the Neolithic era, which in turn is the third and latest part of that vast span of time called the Stone Age. The Neolithic saw the beginnings of agriculture; it ended as metal tools and weapons came into use and as Egyptian dynastic civilization got under way. The analysis by Bentley and colleagues also found that early Neolithic women were more likely than men to have originated from areas outside those where their bodies were found, the scientists reported. 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, they said. The evidence is consistent with other archaeological, genetic, anthropological and even linguistic evidence for patrilocality in Neolithic Europe, they added. “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,” Bentley said. This evidence is distinct from “later prehistory, when inequality and intergenerational wealth transfers are more clearly evidenced in burials and material culture,” he added. “It seems the Neolithic era introduced heritable property (land and livestock) into Europe and that wealth inequality got underway when this happened. After that, of course, there was no looking back: through the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Industrial era wealth inequality increased, but the ‘seeds’ of inequality were sown way back in the Neolithic.”