Left) A grave from Osłonki with valuable artifacts, visible near the hands; right) a drawing of the artifacts. Source: Peter Bogucki

Neolithic Wealth Gap Wasn’t Just for the Living


An international team of archaeologists in Poland have been working to answer a very interesting question. Were the people buried with rich grave goods necessarily as wealthy in life as they were in death? Their focus was a Neolithic cemetery dating to 4,600 BC that is located at Osłonki, Poland. Although they did not set out to discover if there was a Neolithic wealth gap in the area, that was another revelation of their investigation.

Although studies have been conducted on the wealth gap in other periods, what happened for people living during Neolithic times is still largely unknown. So, the archaeological team decided to see if there was any relation between an individual’s diet (used as a measurement of their wealth) and the artifacts they found in the graves. The archaeologists believe that a better diet suggests that the person was wealthier than someone who did not eat as well, and this could be reflected by the individual being laid to rest with more elite items.

Copper Artifacts were a Sign of Neolithic Wealth in Poland

Of course, there is also the chance that more luxurious grave goods, such as valuable beads and copper artifacts, just reflect personal style or mean a person was more valued in their community, but not necessarily wealthier while they were living than others who were buried without rich grave goods. That’s why copper artifacts in particular were singled out for analysis - because they were not that common in Neolithic Poland , so they were likely to have been elite items.

In fact, the copper artifacts found in the graves from 6,600 years ago are some of the oldest copper artifacts in Northern Europe. The copper came from hundreds of kilometers away in south-central Europe. According to Professor Peter Bogucki of Princeton University, who was involved in the research, “In the case of Osłonki, we can see that the presence of copper objects in some graves – an exotic material that would have been imported from great distance – is linked with differences in the diets during the lifetimes of these individuals.”

The Neolithic community in Osłonki lasted for around 200 years, but was abandoned around 4,400 BC. The community faced some conflict during that time and they built a defensive wall and ditch for protection. Nonetheless, their community fell, like others in the region, after a couple of centuries. It seems that when the community collapsed so did the trade network that was bringing copper into Northern Europe because the researchers state that “ copper ornaments [were] not seen again for a millennium.”

Detail of a copper artifact showing Neolithic wealth in a grave at Osłonki, Poland. (Credit: Peter Bogucki)

Detail of a copper artifact showing Neolithic wealth in a grave at Osłonki, Poland. (Credit: Peter Bogucki )

Do Luxurious Grave Goods Prove a Wealth Gap in Life?

The researchers’ findings show that the people buried with copper artifacts did apparently hold a higher position in their societies and were likely wealthier than the people lacking the copper grave goods. They made that conclusion based on an analysis of the stable isotopes from different burials. Stable isotopes are chemical compounds that remain in a skeleton and they can be used to find out about what people consumed during life.

The wealthier Neolithic people buried with copper artifacts “likely had greater access to high-quality cattle pastures,” according to the researchers, and they said that this discovery “enables us to think of the Brześć Kujawski Group as having a more complicated set of social relationships than we had hitherto imagined.”

The wealthier Neolithic people buried with copper artifacts “likely had greater access to high-quality cattle pastures.” (Public Domain)

The wealthier Neolithic people buried with copper artifacts “likely had greater access to high-quality cattle pastures.” ( Public Domain )

The study to be published in the journal Antiquity tomorrow, was led by Dr. Chelsea Budd, of Umeå University in Sweden, and included an international research team. Budd explains that exploring the possibility of a Neolithic wealth gap was not the original plan. “Initially, we were just interested in studying the food they ate to understand the development of farming in early prehistoric Europe,” Dr. Budd said. But they soon found out there was probably a relation between the more elaborate copper artifacts and fancier beads in a person’s grave and them having a better diet. It appears that even in Neolithic times the people that had more advantages in life also benefitted upon their death.

The Continued Divide Between the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have Nots’

The researchers also found that the Neolithic wealth gap was prevalent in the community for more than just one generation. Since farming land is usually inherited, they explained, the people who had the best pastures probably passed those on to their descendants as well. As Dr. Budd says:

“We have uncovered some of the earliest evidence for a direct link between social status and long-term diet in prehistoric Europe. We are witnessing the emergence of social and economic inequality in early prehistoric communities – the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ - at a time much earlier than we thought.”

Inequality is a complicated issue that is obviously not new, but studying how social and wealth divisions emerged so long ago may be of use during future research and understanding the current situation as well. As the researchers said, “We can also connect this evidence with other aspects of contemporaneous societies that are continually coming to light, such as interpersonal violence , land use, subsistence economies , and archaeogenetic inter-relationships.”

Artistic reconstruction of a 5,000-year-old mass burial found in Koszyce, Poland. (H. Schroeder et al. 2019)

Artistic reconstruction of a 5,000-year-old mass burial found in Koszyce, Poland. ( H. Schroeder et al. 2019 )

The next step for the researchers is to examine and radiocarbon date more skeletal samples and test out a different isotope analysis on the remains. “By adopting this approach, we can not only examine the intricacies of diet in more detail, but we can also examine mobility and migration in the region,” the researchers said. Ancient DNA studies on skeletal remains from the site are also currently underway in Łódź, Poland.

The full report will be available from Antiquity on August 4 th, 10.00 BST.

Top Image: (Left) A grave from Osłonki with valuable artifacts, visible near the hands; (right) a drawing of the artifacts. Source: Peter Bogucki

By Alicia McDermott



Pete Wagner's picture

There’s no strong evidence to suggest that prehistoric cultures had any wealth disparity or even possessed an equivalent to the modern concept of it.  More likely, and in fitting with good people, they practiced a form of tribal communism.  But today, with the mind-trick known as money dominating all things, to include all the major institutions themselves, there’s a blind and deluded tendency to project it and other modern ideas, many of which are dubious and have no true necessity for human life, onto earlier cultures.  Maybe the worst of this bad habit is when they try to explain the graves, most of which suggest they were common subterranean living quarters, as a tomb for a so-called ‘elite’.  But just think, would a tribe surviving and emerging from the cataclysmic 100k-year Ice Age have maintained a class structure, or would it have been, as per human nature, all for one and one for all, ...or demise.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

WillowVane's picture

It is very sloppy to ascribe the source of the copper, without any evidence to support that fanciful claim. It could have easily came from America with the Native American Indian who routinely traded copper & other goods to the Eurasian Continent. Without conclusive evidence that this copper is *Not from America; the base conclusion must be that any copper from the Neolithic is from America; as such was well established long before; which was eventually mixed with British Tin to ignite the Bronze Age & thence to the Iron Age. Just because there is a cache of copper nearby; does not mean that it was utilized at the time. Sloppy. Just sloppy.

David Charles B-Ware-Smedley TPO

Alicia McDermott's picture


Alicia McDermott holds degrees in Anthropology, Psychology, and International Development Studies and has worked in various fields such as education, anthropology, and tourism. She is the Chief Editor of Ancient Origins Magazine. Traveling throughout Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, Alicia... Read More

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