Faces Of Ancient Bronze Age Culture Revealed In Digital Reconstructions

A facial reconstruction of a person found at the La Almoloya, an important settlement of the El Argar culture. Image credit: © Joana Bruno / ASOME / Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. All rights reserved.

New genetic research has shed light on the colossal cultural changes the people of the Eastern Mediterranean underwent during the Bronze Age. Meanwhile, an adjoined digital reconstruction project is providing a glimpse of the faces of the people who lived through this time. 

As reported in the journal Science Advances this week, the DNA of 136 ancient people who lived in southern Iberia, modern-day Spain, and Portugal from 3,000 to 1,500 BCE was investigated by researchers from the Autonomous University of Barcelona and the Max Planck Institutes for the Science of Human History & Evolutionary Anthropology.

Around 2,200 BCE, this part of the world underwent a stunning social and political change, transitioning from a Copper Age culture to a Bronze Age culture. One of the most prominent cultures that emerged at this time was the “El Argar” societies, one of the first state-level societies on the European continent. They were known for their large settlements, distinct pottery, specialized weapons, and delicate artifacts fashioned from bronze, silver, and gold.

12 faces in profile
12 faces in profile from La Almoloya and La Bastida. Image credit: © Joana Bruno / ASOME / Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. All rights reserved

Along with this culture shift, there was also a dynamic shift in the genetic make-up of the population. According to the new study, the people of the El Argar culture had strong genetic links to the "steppe-related ancestry” found in people from Central Europe. On the other hand, other cultures from this region at the time such as the local Chalcolithic Neolithic farmer population did not have this link to Central Europe. 

“While we knew that the so-called ‘steppe’-related ancestry, which had spread across Europe during the third millennium BCE, eventually reached the northern Iberian Peninsula around 2400 BCE, we were surprised to see that all prehistoric individuals from the El Argar period carried a portion of this ancestry, while the Chalcolithic individuals did not,” Wolfgang Haak, senior study author and principal investigator of the study from the Max Planck Institutes for the Science of Human History, said in a statement.

Another arm of this project that is yet to be published in a journal saw Joana Bruno, a doctoral student at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, create digital facial reconstructions of people (video below) buried at La Almoloya, an important settlement of the El Argar culture.

Significantly, the genetic study found that the males appeared to have stronger ties with the "steppe-related ancestry,” while the females were primarily descended from local ancestry. The males from the El Argar group were also buried with many of their relatives, while the females had notably fewer relatives. At the same time, there’s also evidence that females held significant power and esteem in El Argar culture, frequently being buried alongside fine ornaments of power such as one who was buried with a silver crown.  

Dr Rihuete-Herrada, a co-author of the genetic study, told the New York Times times that there could be a few reasons behind this trend. One likely explanation is that local settlements sent their daughters to marry and form alliances with this new group of foreign people.

Image credit: © Joana Bruno / ASOME / Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. All rights reserved

Regardless of the precise social dynamics, it’s unclear what sparked this mass migration and genetic shift among the population. Many factors are likely to be behind the shift, but it’s suspected to be related to some form of catastrophe, whether it be a pandemic or climate change, which is known to have affected the eastern Mediterranean around this period. 

“Whether the genetic shift was brought about by migrating groups from North and Central Iberia or by climatic deteriorations that affected the eastern Mediterranean around 2200 BCE is the million-dollar question,” explained Professor Roberto Risch, co-principal investigator and senior author from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. “It would be foolish to think that it can all be explained by a simple, one-factor model. While the temporal coincidence is striking, it is likely that many factors played a role.”

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