Spanish Skeletons Reveal Deep-Rooted Inequality of El Argar Society
The El Argar society thrived in complex hilltop settlements across the Iberian Peninsula from 2200-1550 BC, and gravesites and settlement layouts from the time provide strong evidence of a marked social hierarchy. Now scientists studying skeletal evidence have discovered the shocking extent of the inequality within this ancient civilization. The study provides insights into a major, yet mysterious Bronze Age civilization that once flourished in what is modern Spain.
Mysterious Bronze Age Society
The study involved examining the skeletal remains of members of the El Argar society. This was a sophisticated culture that dominated much of the southeast of the Iberian Peninsula and is considered to be “among the first complex societies in Europe,” according to PLOSONE. The agricultural society was characterized by fortified hill settlements that were used to dominate fertile valleys and plains.
Ceramic vessel to store grain used in the burial of an adult woman. Tomb 21 of El Argar’s La Bastida. (ASOME / UAB)
A team of international experts led by Dr Corrina Knipper, of CEZA in Mannheim, Germany, conducted the study. Unusually they compiled several samples for isotopic analysis. They examined the remains of 75 humans, including those from men, women and children that were found in burial grounds at the two hillside settlements. Also examined were animal bones, both domesticated and wild. Then wheat and barley samples from the sites were also examined.
The samples were taken from La Bastida, which is today near Totana, Murcia and Gatas, which is now in present-day Turre, Almería. La Bastida was the larger settlement and it was presumably richer than the smaller Gatas. The experts compared the data from these sites to get a better understanding of the enigmatic Argaric culture.
Maximum territorial extension of the El Argar culture and locations of the analyzed sites of La Bastida and Gatas. (ASOME, UAB / PLOSONE)
During the research, the experts used isotope analysis and created statistical models to reach conclusions about the samples. This allowed the team to understand the level of carbon and nitrogen in the remains, including animal, human and botanical. In general, they found that the population at the locations lived off cereals, which made up the bulk of their diet.
They were also able to establish that “elite individuals at La Bastida showed higher levels of both carbon and nitrogen,” reports Heritage Daily. They were classed as elite because of the number of grave goods in their graves, such as bronze tools and ceramics. The higher isotopes of nitrogen and carbon showed the elite ate more nutritious foodstuffs. Those buried with grave goods consumed more meat and dairy products when compared to those who were buried in non-elite graves with few or any artifacts.
Location of the site of El Argar’s La Bastida between the mountain ranges of Espuña and La Tercia in Spain. (ASOME, UAB / PLOSONE)
This would indicate that there was a level of social inequality in El Argar culture. This is also apparent in the archaeological records of the settlements. PLOSONE reports that the “isotopic data reflect social differences that is inferred from the funerary record and the economic organization of the settlements to some extent.”
The team after a further investigation concluded that the La Bastida site was more fertile, because the local land was fertilized by domesticated animals. Cristina Rihuete of the Universidat Autonoma de Barcelona told the Daily Mail that “La Bastida practiced more intensive land management, combining agricultural and animal husbandry, this allowed them to increase their farming economy.” As a result, La Bastida had more resources but based on the finds it seems that the dominant class benefited more from this than the poor.
Aerial shot of the El Argar La Bastida excavation site. (UAB)
Apart from the diet of the rich and the powerful, it seems that the diets of most people were rather similar. There were no real differences between the food eaten by men and women. There was some difference between the two sites, but this did not “correspond to different average diets, but agricultural strategies,” according to PLOS. This is believed to be a result of the fact that those who lived at La Bastida had access to more cattle than at the smaller site.
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Insights into Bronze Age Society
An examination of the bone collagen of children’s remains provided insights into their lives in the Bronze Age. PLOSONE reports that the finds “suggest that children were breastfed until about 1.5 to 2 years old.” The team also found that those infants from Gatas suffered more “metabolic stress” than those at the larger site according to PLOSONE. This is a proper reflection of the fact that La Bastida had access to more agricultural resources.
The study sought to understand the isotopic compositions of a variety of data sets from across the sites, including human, animal and grains. Typically, scientists only study the remains of people. Dr Knipper is quoted by Heritage Daily that “it is essential to not only investigate human remains but also comparative samples of different former foodstuffs as well as to interpret the data in the light of the archaeological and social-historical context.”
This means that the isotopic analysis can produce better results and produce a picture of an ancient society over some time. As a result, the Daily Mail reports that the experts had a “clearer reconstruction of the entire food chain.” The team have provided unprecedented insights into the life and society of one of the first known European civilizations.
Top image: 3D Reconstruction of the El Argar civilization’s La Bastida site. Source: Dani Méndes, Revives / Eureka
By Ed Whelan