A fascinating new study chronicles the family histories of European Bronze Age households, revealing the presence of surprising marital practices, patterns of inheritance, and the unexpected early emergence of social inequality within these homestead farms—including the possible use of slaves or servants.
That social inequalities existed in Bronze Age Europe is well established, as evidenced by early palace-like structures and the elaborate burials of high-status individuals, which point to the presence of an elite warrior class. New research published today in Science, however, focused its attention on something a bit more relatable in terms of the general population and how they lived as Europe was transitioning from Neolithic to Bronze Age lifestyles nearly 5,000 years ago.
“The results of our study speak to a different kind of social inequality: A hierarchy within one household, consisting of a wealthy, high-status core family and unrelated members who did not share this wealth and status,” archaeologist Alissa Mittnik, the first author of the new study and a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena and the University of Tübingen, wrote in an email to Gizmodo.
Mittnik and her colleagues, including co-authors Johannes Krause, also from the Max Planck Institute and the University of Tübingen, and Philipp Stockhammer from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet, reached these conclusions by studying the remains of over 100 individuals who lived in Germany’s Lech Valley, located south of Augsburg, during the Late Neolithic to the Middle Bronze Age—a timespan lasting from around 4,750 to 3,320 years ago. These individuals lived in farmstead homes and were buried in nearby cemeteries, allowing the researchers to reconstruct the composition and social dynamics of single households.
Analysis of the skeletal remains revealed the presence of reasonably well-off “core” family members who lived alongside seemingly low-status individuals, as suggested by the quality, or lack thereof, of associated grave goods. The high-status family members were closely related and were found buried alongside valuables such as weapons and ornate jewelry. Low-status individuals, on the other hand, were not biologically related to the core family, and their bodies, while placed in the same cemetery, were not accompanied with grave goods, according to the new research.
The nature of this unexpected social structure and apparent social inequality is not fully understood, but the researchers speculate cautiously that this is an early example of slavery or servitude. As the authors point out in the study, some households in ancient Greece and Rome included slaves. If the same arrangement existed among these Bronze Age Europeans—a big if—it would push back the origin of this social disparity back in time by around 1,500 years.
Sadly, the absence of written accounts makes it very difficult for archaeologists to discern family and household arrangements from so long ago. To overcome these limitations, Mittnik and her colleagues took a multidisciplinary approach, using genetics, isotopic data, and traditional archaeological and anthropological approaches to reconstruct these prehistoric settings.
The new research provides a highly focused snapshot into one particular geographic region, the Lech Valley, and the socioeconomic and familial dynamics of single households over multiple generations.
“By focusing on a small region and combining different scientific methods—genetics to reconstruct family relations, stable isotopes to detect individual mobility, radiocarbon dating of all skeletons, and an in-depth archaeological assessment—we are able to get a much more detailed picture of what life was like in these prehistoric communities, and what social structures and rules were in place,” said Mittnik.
Incredibly, the researchers were able to reconstruct several family trees that spanned four to five generations, discern the geographic origin of individuals, and establish the socioeconomic status of specific family members. Combined, the analysis revealed the presence of previously undetected social inequalities among these Bronze Age Europeans at the household level.
“This study brings together several strands of archaeological science approaches, which have emerged in the last decade, and applies them to a concise case study covering the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age transition,” explained Katharina Rebay-Salisbury, an archaeologist from the Institute for Oriental and European Archaeology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, in an email to Gizmodo. “It is different from many population-wide genome studies, because it considers the personal life histories of people in the past—their age, gender, mobility history, and how they were biologically related to others,” said Rebay-Salisbury, who wasn’t involved with the research.
The study “advances our knowledge of how people lived together, and how biological and social relations correlate—or not,” she said. The researchers were able to identify several lineages, all male, which “could be traced over generations, a group of ‘foreign,’ high-status women, and some low-status, low-rank individuals.”
Indeed, in nearly all the homes the females were not related to the males, and only male lineages could be identified. The reason for this, according to the authors, has to do with a previously identified Bronze Age practice known as patrilocality, in which newlywed wives moved in with their husband’s family. Through this custom, sons introduced new wives to the household who weren’t biologically related, while daughters, when reaching maturity, left the household, taking their genes along with them.
“One striking observation was that these family trees only contained daughters who died when they were under the age of 15 to 17, consistent with a patrilocal family structure in which women leave the family they grew up in to join the household of their husband,” said Mittnik.
The practice of patrilocality, combined with female exogamy (when women marry outside their social group) also explains the presence of high-status, unrelated women in the households. These high-status women were likely the wives and mothers of the core family, all of whom came to the Lech Valley from outside the community—in some cases as far as hundreds of kilometers away, according to the isotopic data.
“This marriage network likely strengthened and upheld contacts across large distances and led to cultural as well as genetic exchange,” Mittnik told Gizmodo.
Rebay-Salisbury was intrigued by the evidence pointing to patrilocality and female exogamy, saying it presents a host of important questions that need to be answered.
“We do not know which form this took,” she said. “Were women free to choose partners of a different community, or were they forced to marry the partners the family chose for them? Or were the women brought into the community through capture and raids? Some foreign women are buried with grave goods indicating high status, but none of their offspring has been detected genetically. This might be [the result] of low numbers, but it is strange—we assume foreign women are brought into the communities to become mothers and start a family. Perhaps we need to think of alternative models,” suggested Rebay-Salisbury.
But these households also included a significant number of non-related local individuals who were less well-off economically, as suggested by the paucity of grave goods found alongside their skeletons.
“We find two groups of individuals not related to the main families, but buried in the same cemeteries: the first is women who grew up far from the Lech valley, and are interred with rich grave goods, so likely held a high social status. At the moment we can only speculate about their role, but we assume they were not slaves,” said Mittnik. “The second group is likely local individuals whose graves contain no or only poor grave goods. For this second group we speculate that they might be slaves or servants, as their graves suggest a lower status. From history we know of similar household forms in ancient Rome and Greece, where the family or household encompassed the domestic slaves.”
Interestingly, the reconstructed family trees hint at the presence of inheritance and the passing down of high socioeconomic status from generation to generation. In a surprising result, the researchers found that adult brothers and their families were buried in the same cemetery. According to Mittnik, this suggests inheritance didn’t only favor the eldest son, as was typical of some societies in historical times, but possibly that “brothers kept living [in] and running the farmstead together.”
Mittnik was careful to point out that her team’s findings can only be applied to the small region studied in the Lech Valley, but other “archaeological evidence suggests that this social system existed in a much broader region,” she said.
Siân Halcrow, an associate from the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Otago, said the new results are “compelling.”
“This paper is really exciting for providing a detailed picture of kinship, social relationships, and social ‘ranking’ between people in prehistoric Europe,” Halcrow, who wasn’t involved with the new research, wrote in an email to Gizmodo. “This work is innovative, using a multi-faceted approach incorporating genomic data (to determine kinship), archaeological indicators of ‘status’ (grave goods), chemical (isotopic) data to differentiate local people and immigrants.”
Richard Madgwick, an archaeologist from Cardiff University, also not involved with the study, said the new paper is novel in that the researchers “integrated genomic data to disentangle some of the more complex aspects of social organisation that are often not accessible using conventional methods.”
That said, Madgwick was skeptical of how the researchers discerned high-status from low-status individuals, saying there was “perhaps a somewhat uncritical use of grave goods as a proxy for status—this is a bit simplistic, but inevitably tempting in the absence of other data,” Madgwick wrote to Gizmodo. “Nonetheless, the old adage that ‘the dead don’t bury themselves’ still stands true,” he added. Good point.
As to the speculated presence of slaves or servants, and the comparisons to ancient Greece and Rome, Madgwick said the conclusions reached about status and relatedness are convincing, but he believes that “drawing parallels with very different classical social structures may be stretching the evidence, and I would be hesitant about suggesting the presence of slaves, though this is only a fleeting note in the paper.”
Halcrow said the interpretation of slaves was “problematic.”
“I don’t think we can know if the people who had ‘low-status’ as defined by their grave wealth were slaves or servants,” she told Gizmodo. “The authors draw similarities between the Early Bronze Age households and later historic period households such as the Greek oikos and Roman familia where there is evidence for slaves living with kin-related families. However, these associations need to be made with caution. Given the major social changes and thousands of years in time difference between the prehistoric periods studied and the historical periods, I find this association problematic.”
Rebay-Salisbury said the word “slave” triggers “powerful emotional responses, and is “today most often understood in a colonial context and in connection to race,” but this isn’t how slaves were understood in Graeco-Roman antiquity, she said. In those cultures, “all slaves were unfree and property of another person, but their roles ranged from cherished members of the household, such as teachers and wet-nurses, to abused and routinely beaten workers in silver mines, who rarely survived for more than a few years,” explained Rebay-Salisbury. “I would prefer the more neutral description as low-status, unrelated individual, which gives the opportunity to further explore what this kind of social position was about, rather than pre-assuming a specific meaning.”
Trying to discern the complexities of family dynamics with such little data, and at a distance of nearly 5,000 years, is immensely difficult, to say the least. Today, we carry our own conceptions of families, households, and what it means to be a low- or high-status individual, but who’s to say what these conceptions meant to Europeans living during the Bronze Age? Clearly, a lot of work still needs to be done to convert speculation into concrete facts. But this is good, especially considering the many avenues of research the new paper is likely to inspire.
“The Bronze Age is awesome!☺️There is so much more to explore—we are getting from a very simple picture of prehistory to really understanding social dynamics in the past,” said Rebay-Salisbury. “And this teaches us much about the present, too, as we can use prehistory to reflect on topics that are important today, such as gender inequality, migration, and social difference.”