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Illustration of the later Bronze Age by Rasmus Christiansen.               Source: Dandebak

Puzzling Family Structure Revealed in Bronze Age Households


Archaeogenetic analyses have provided new insights into social structures of Bronze age households in ‘Europe’ 4000 years ago. Nuclear families lived together with foreign women and unrelated individuals from lower social classes. Why were rich and poor found as part of one household? And who were all the high social status foreign women that seem to be part of the family?

Social Inequality in Bronze Age Households

Social inequality already existed in southern Germany 4000 years ago, even within one household, a new study published in the journal Science has found. Archaeological and archaeogenetic analyses of Bronze Age cemeteries in the Lech Valley, near Augsburg, show that families of biologically related persons with higher status lived together with unrelated women who came from afar and also had a high status, according to their grave goods.

Another anomaly was what had happened to all the daughters. "We were totally missing adult daughters," says team member Alissa Mittnik, a postdoc at Harvard Medical School in Boston. The finding suggests that the local women were sent away for marriage. The only high class local women found were those who had died in adolescence and young adulthood.

In addition, a larger number of local but clearly less well-off individuals were found in the same cemeteries, which were small gravesites associated with single homesteads. The researchers conclude that social inequality was already part of household structures in that time and region. Whether the less well-off individuals were servants or slaves can only be speculated upon.

A Changing Europe

In Central Europe, the Bronze Age covers the period from 2200 to 800 BC and it was a period of great change. At that time people acquired the ability to cast bronze. This knowledge led to an early globalization, since the raw materials had to be transported across Europe.

In an earlier study, the current team had shown that, 4000 years ago, the majority of women in the Lech Valley came from abroad and may have played a decisive role in the transfer of knowledge. Supraregional networks were apparently fostered by marriages and institutionalized forms of mobility.

The mobility of women at this time has already been established, with an example being recent revelations regarding Egtved Girl in Denmark.

The coffin and remains of the Egtved Girl, in Denmark. Researchers have discovered the high-status teen was born and raised afar from her burial site. (Credit: Karin Margarita Frei, National Museum of Denmark)

The coffin and remains of the Egtved Girl, in Denmark. Researchers have discovered the high-status teen was born and raised afar from her burial site. ( Credit: Karin Margarita Frei, National Museum of Denmark)

Study Illuminates Social Inequalities

The current archaeological-scientific project was situated at the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and led by Philipp Stockhammer from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich. The researchers attempted to investigate the effects of this mobility and other concurrent changes. The excavations south of Augsburg, which took place at the sites of Bronze Age homestead farms and their associated graveyards, enabled archaeologists to zoom into the Bronze Age in unprecedented resolution in order to investigate how the transition from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age affected the households of that time.

According to Philipp Stockhammer, Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at LMU Munich:

"Wealth was correlated with either biological kinship or foreign origin. The nuclear family passed on their property and status over generations. But at every farm we also found poorly equipped people of local origin."

This finding suggests a complex social structure of households, as is also known from Classical Greece and Rome. In Roman times, slaves were also part of the family unit, but had a different social status. However, these people in the Lech Valley lived over 1500 years earlier. "This shows how long the history of social inequality in family structures goes back in time," Stockhammer continues.

Palloza houses in eastern Galicia, an evolved form of the Iron Age local roundhouses. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Palloza houses in eastern Galicia, an evolved form of the Iron Age local roundhouses. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Stable social structures over 700 years

It was already known that the first larger hierarchical social structures evolved in the Bronze Age. The findings of the current study were surprising in that social differences existed within a single household and were maintained over generations.

Grave goods can reveal the social status of the deceased to archaeologists. In the Lech Valley, weapons and elaborate jewelry were only found in the graves of closely related family members and women who came into the family from long distances, up to several hundred kilometers away. Other unrelated individuals of local origin were found in the same cemeteries without such high-status grave goods.

This study also succeeded in reconstructing for the first time family trees from prehistoric cemeteries spanning four to five generations. Surprisingly, however, these only included the male lineages. The female descendants apparently left the farms when they reached adulthood. The mothers of the sons, on the other hand, were all women who had moved in from afar.

"Archaeogenetics provides us with a completely new view of the past. Until recently, we would not have thought it possible to examine marriage rules, social structure and social inequality in prehistory." Johannes Krause, Director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for Human History.

Paternal Inheritance

The archaeologists on the project were able to compare the degree of kinship with the grave goods and the location of the graves and show how couples and their children were buried. This was made possible by generating genome-wide data from more than 100 ancient skeletons, which allowed reconstructing family tress from prehistoric bone. Only the genetically unrelated local members of a household were buried without significant grave goods.

"Unfortunately, we cannot say whether these individuals were servants and maids or perhaps even enslaved," says Alissa Mittnik.

"What is certain is that through the male lines, the farmsteads were passed from generation to generation and this system was stable over at least 700 years, across the transition from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age. The Lech Valley shows how early social inequality within individual households can be found."

Top image: Illustration of the later Bronze Age by Rasmus Christiansen.               Source: Dandebak

The article, originally titled ‘Archaeology: Social inequality in Bronze Age householdswas first published on Science Daily.

Source: Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. "Archaeology: Social inequality in Bronze Age households." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 October 2019.

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