Human inequality goes all the way back to the Bronze Age, study finds

NHM Vienna/Hans Reschreiter

Wealth inequality has been a hot topic of discussion as of late, but it's something that's occurred all throughout history. Class structure is a complicated issue, especially when you consider that haves and have nots have been in existence for over 4,000 years.

A study published in Science took a look at over 100 late Neolithic and early Bronze Age skeletons found in a burial site in southern Germany. The study "shed light on the complexity of social status, inheritance rules, and mobility during the Bronze Age." Partly by looking at their teeth and the artifacts they were buried with, researchers were able to discover that wealth inequality existed almost 4,000 years ago. "Our results reveal that individual households lasting several generations consisted of a high-status core family and unrelated low-status individuals, a social organization accompanied by patrilocality and female exogamy, and the stability of this system over 700 years," the study said.

The researchers examined the bones of people found buried together on the same farm. Those who were related were buried with items that seemed to be passed down from generation to generation. Those who were unrelated were buried with nothing, which suggested that they were lower class. "We don't know if the low-status individuals in Augsburg were slaves, menial staff or something else," Philipp Stockhammer, co-author of the study, told Scientific American. "But we can see that in every household, individuals of very different status were living together."

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Their teeth held a lot of secrets. The researchers radio dated teeth samples then compared them with regional geographic radioactivity profiles in order to determine where the people were from. The women were all from somewhere else, which suggested that the ancient farmers had a system of patrilocality, which is a social system where a couple lives near the husband's parents. Farms were passed from generation to generation (provided you were male) while women left the family to get married into a different family.

The research gives us a better understanding of how our ancestors lived, specifically when it comes to how they passed on wealth. "Their finding that wealth was inherited, rather than achieved, has real impacts for research on inequality and will likely change our understanding of ancient Europe. The results give us insight into the complexity of ancient lifeways," University of Michigan archeologist Alicia Ventresca Miller told Scientific American.

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We can unearth the bones of ancient people and radiodate their teeth, but it's harder to find out how they felt about their social structure. Did they have the same problems that we're having today? Or was this system, which lasted for over 700 years, completely workable for our ancestors?


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