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Bronze Age Families Appear To Have Practiced Both Monogamy And Polygamy

The invention of the third wheel.

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Ben Taub

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Ben Taub

Freelance Writer

Benjamin holds a Master's degree in anthropology from University College London and has worked in the fields of neuroscience research and mental health treatment.

Freelance Writer

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Nepluyevsky skeleton

Only one of the six brothers found at Nepluyevsky had a second wife.

Image credit: Svetlana Sharapova

A Bronze Age family that lived 3,800 years ago in the Southern Urals may have taken a flexible approach to marriage, with most men allowed just one wife while a select few enjoyed the company of multiple women. Analyzing the genomes of 32 ancient relatives who were all interred in the same burial mound, researchers found that the oldest of six brothers appeared to have the luxury of a second wife.

Comprising three generations, the skeletons were all discovered in a kurgan (burial mound) at the Nepluyevsky site in Russia. Among those interred were the six brothers, their wives, children, and grandchildren, although no female blood relatives over the age of five were present within the grave.

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Reconstructing a family tree based on the skeletons’ DNA, the researchers found that the oldest brother had eight children by two different women, while none of the other brothers had more than three children or one wife. "In Nepluyevsky, we find evidence of a pattern of inequality typical of pastoralists: multiple partners and many children for the putative firstborn son and no or monogamous relationships for most others," explained study author Jens Blöcher in a statement.

"It is remarkable that the first-born brother apparently had a higher status and thus greater chances of reproduction,” Blöcher added. “The right of the male firstborn seems familiar to us, it is known from the Old Testament, for example, but also from the aristocracy in historical Europe."

And while the researchers can’t determine whether the eldest brother had two wives at the same time or simply re-married following the death of his first partner, they suggest that his status as the firstborn may have released him from certain marital restrictions within Bronze Age society. “Although monogamous relationships appear to have been the norm at Nepluyevsky, polygamous partnerships cannot be excluded in general,” they write.

The absence of any adult female relatives, meanwhile, strongly suggests that the inhabitants of Nepluyevsky were patrilocal, meaning women were married out to other communities while men remained within their birth tribe and mated with foreign wives. "Female marriage mobility is a common pattern that makes sense from an economic and evolutionary perspective,” explains senior author Joachim Burger. “While one sex stays local and ensures the continuity of the family line and property, the other marries in from the outside to prevent inbreeding."

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Aside from determining the marriage and residence practices of Bronze Age Eurasians, the researchers were also able to glean information relating to the quality of life enjoyed - or endured - by this pastoral community. According to study author Svetlana Sharapova, "the state of health of the family buried here must have been very poor. The average life expectancy of the women was 28 years, that of the men 36 years."

Noting that the final generation of burials consisted mainly of children and infants and that use of the kurgan appears to have ended rather abruptly, Sharapova says "it is possible that the inhabitants were decimated by disease or that the remaining population went elsewhere in search of a better life."

Completing the grim picture, the researchers write, “High overall levels of child mortality, combined with short life expectancies at this site and other sites in the region, suggest that the local living conditions were demanding.”

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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