It’s all too easy to imagine that the Stone Age was a time of wandering warrior men with their women staying at home to tend to the hearth and family, and that independent, well-traveled, and important women are a relatively new phenomenon in human history.
However, a new study suggests quite the opposite.
The new research, published in the journal PNAS, suggests that it was women who traveled vast distances in Western Europe around the turn of the Stone Age and the start of the Bronze Age. Through this exploration of new lands in search of new villages to start families with, the women would have exchanged objects and cultural ideas, in turn playing a key role in the development of Early Bronze Age technology.
The researchers from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich used ancient DNA and isotope analyses of 84 skeletons found in present-day Lechtal in the south of Augsburg, Germany. This revealed that the majority of women came from outside the area, probably from Bohemia or Central Germany, while the men appeared to have remained in the region of their birth. The women’s origins also appeared to be from a diverse range of places in the nearby region, as opposed to from one particular partnering town.
"Based on analysis of strontium isotope ratios in molars, which allows us to draw conclusions about the origin of people, we were able to ascertain that the majority of women did not originate from the region," archaeologist Corina Knipper explained.
"We see a great diversity of different female lineages, which would occur if over time many women relocated to the Lech Valley from somewhere else," added researcher Alissa Mittnik.
The researchers were able to tell that these women were respected and integrated into the local community through the fact that they were buried in the same way as the native population. Since all these skeletons were buried over a period of 800 years, between 2500 and 1650 BCE, it suggests this was an established “institutionalized” cultural pattern.
This study looked at just one area of current-day Germany, so it’s hard to tell how widely practiced these exchanges were across Europe or even the wider world. It also isn’t possible to strictly tell whether women were the active and willing participants in the practice or whether they were forced into marriages with partnering towns. Nevertheless, it appears to be no coincidence that these women were traveling up to 500 kilometers (300 miles) to other lands and exchanging ideas at a time where a widespread cultural shift was helping bring Europe out of the Stone Age.