Stone Age Bones Show The Earliest Evidence Of A Wealth Gap In Europe

One of the individuals unearthed at the Neolithic cemetery near the Polish village of Osłonki. Budd et al, 2020/Antiquity

The Stone Age is often romanticized as a time when people lived with very little inequality. True as this may be, it appears that social inequality very quickly crept into communities just after the advent of agriculture.

Archaeologists have discovered a glaring wealth gap found between the skeletal inhabitants of a 6,600-year-old cemetery in Europe. Analysis of their diet showed those buried alongside valuable beads and elaborate copper artifacts also had better access to high-quality food, while those not buried with any Earthly objects appear to have eaten a comparatively poor diet.

Reporting their research in the journal Antiquity, the team says this could be the “earliest direct evidence” of social inequality and a wealth gap ever discovered in Europe.

“We have uncovered some of the earliest evidence for a direct link between social status and long-term diet in prehistoric Europe,” lead author Dr Chelsea Budd, an archaeologist from Umeå University in Sweden, said in an emailed statement. “We are witnessing the emergence of social and economic inequality in early prehistoric communities – the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ – at a time much earlier than we thought.” 

A team of researchers from Sweden, the US, and the UK looked at 30 individuals who lived within 200 years of each other buried at a Neolithic cemetery near the Polish village of Osłonki. Along with documenting the objects each individual was buried with, they also carried out an analysis of the skeletons' stable isotopes, chemical elements that become incorporated into bone based on the person’s long-term diet. 

Simplified plan of the settlement at Osłonki, showing trapeziform longhouses and the distribution of burials. Burials outlined with black squares were isotopically analyzed for this project; burials in red contained copper artifacts. Budd et al., 2020, Antiquity

Most notably, the people buried with valuable artifacts contained stable isotopes that indicated they ate a diet rich in animal protein, like beef, which would have required a large swath of high-quality pastures to rear animals on. The researchers also discovered bones of cattle from the same time period, confirming this.

The site of Osłonki was home to some of the very first farmers in Northern Europe. This society flourished during the second half of the fifth millennium BCE but collapsed after just 200 years alongside with many other local settlements. Although it’s unclear why some individuals had more riches and access to wealth, the researchers speculate that the “elites” perhaps represented the first people who arrived on the land and set up farming in the area. Those who migrated later had less access to the land, so were effectively a distinct social group based on physical wealth. Since land is often inherited in many cultures, the researchers argue that their study could highlight evidence of a multi-generational social inequality, in which wealth and social status were inherited down through families. 

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