Socioeconomic inequality is a pervasive fact of life in modern times, but evidence shows that a Neolithic society in Spain may have also had a social hierarchy.
An extravagant stone grave, possibly for higher social classes
When researchers analyzed the remains of 166 people in what is now north-central Spain, they found unsurprising similarities and telling differences. Some of remains were interred in caves, while the others had elaborate stone graves. The graves date back to 3,500 to 2,900, and previous studies have shown that there are differences in the location and quality of the graves. Interestingly, researchers have found that the people in these graves were possibly all from the same community, even maintaining the same kind of diet. Why, therefore, were their burials so blatantly different?
Carbon isotope analysis also revealed that the people in the two groups differed in terms of land use. These findings may indicate that social stratification may have already existed in this Neolithic community.
Another stone grave possibly for people in higher societal classes
While it's nice to think that people lived in egalitarian societies thousands of years ago, it seems that that's not the case for this community in what is now Basque country in Spain. “Using carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis of human and animal remains,” says lead researcher Dr. Teresa Fernandez-Crespo, “our study has identified meaningful differences between those buried in caves and megalithic graves in the Late Neolithic of north-central Spain.”
The researchers found through isotopic analysis that people in the two groups had a plant-based human diet. They likely ate barley and wheat, along with protein from cattle and sheep. However, the researchers found a difference between the two groups in their carbon isotope analysis. This difference seemed to have something to do with elevation, temperature, and precipitation, which can indicate two possible explanations for the difference. One explanation is division of land, which may be evidence of socioeconomic inequality within the community. People in the lower social classes may been buried in caves, while people in higher social classes may have been buried in elaborate graves.
Another potential explanation is that the two groups of people are actually two different communities that have different funerary practices. These communities may live close together, but they utilize the landscape differently.
A cave in which people from possibly lower classes were interred
There were significant changes and developments in human technology that took place in the Neolithic Age. Though social stratification is more associated with the Bronze Age, it was already popping up in several communities during the Neolithic. These technological developments, which enabled the shift from hunting-gathering to farming, may have led to the emergence of social classes within small tribes and communities.
Though it's possible that the people in the caves and graves came from different communities, it's also possible that they came from the same one. The researchers will analyze the tooth enamel and dentine of the remains to find out when the isotopic differences came about.
What we know so far with the present findings, however, is how different mortuary practices relate to dietary patterns as well as the possible emergence of socioeconomic inequality in early human societies.
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