Lone Woman Buried With Elite Men Raises Questions About Sex And Power In Stone Age Europe

An artist's impression of Fleury-sur-Orne, a Neolithic burial site near present-day Normandy, France. Image credit: Laurent Juhel

Laying in a collection of Stone Age burial mounds dedicated to elite males, archeologists have discovered the body of a lone female adorned with objects associated with hunting, masculinity, and authority. 

The reason for this unusual arrangement of skeletons is up to some interpretation, but the researchers believe it could shed some light on how this Neolithic European culture viewed certain aspects of sex and power. 

The discovery was recently documented in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The monumental burial mounds found at Fleury-sur-Orne in Normandy, France date back to around 4600 to 4300 BCE and are believed to be some of the oldest funerary structures in western Europe. They belonged to people of the Cerny culture and consist of an unusual set-up, featuring raised mounds that stretch for up 300 meters (984 feet) in length used for the burial of just one or occasionally two individuals.

Whoever was buried here was clearly of social significance, so the researchers used an array of archeological techniques to unearth their identity and relationships. 

The team found the bodies of 19 people at the cemetery, 14 of which were in good enough shape to receive DNA analysis. This revealed that 13 of the bodies were male and, unexpectedly, one was female. Stranger still, the sole female was buried with arrowheads, a symbol typically associated with powerful males in the Cerny culture.

The researchers believe this “questions a strictly biological sex bias in the burial rites of this otherwise ‘masculine’ monumental cemetery.” 

“In Fleury-sur-Orne, the presence of only one woman, endowed with a male symbol, underlines the importance of the male identity in the regional expression of the Cerny culture,” the study authors write.

“The attribution of the male-gendered artifact goes beyond the biological sexual identity. This implies a sine qua [essential] non-condition for this woman and thus, a gender presented as masculine, which has granted her access, through the funerary rites, to this monumental cemetery,” they add. 

The genetic material of the bodies revealed some insights into how power functioned in the Cerny culture. Two pairs of individuals — one pair buried together in the same monument and another pair buried in the same tomb — were identified as father and son. This appears to indicate that this culture worked on a “patrilineal” system, whereby power descended through the male line and women simply “married in” to the clan. 

Oddly though, they found no other biological relationships between the many different bodies found at the cemetery, indicating the group had come from a variety of independent lineages. 

The presence of the lone female does confuse the overall picture of the site. However, there are plenty of other instances of females holding roles of power often associated with masculinity. As these examples show, ideas and assumptions about gender are not set in stone and can vary hugely between cultures.

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