Gene study reveals Bronze Age slavery


4000-year-old German graves indicate a much more complex society than previously thought. Barry Keily reports.


New data from Bronze Age German graves suggests complex societies existed in ancient Europe before classical Greece and Rome.

Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/picture alliance via Getty Images

High status families in late Neolithic and Bronze Age Germany kept slaves, genetic analysis reveals.

The finding, reported in the journal Science, provides fresh insight into ancient life in Europe, showing that complex slave-owning societies were well established long before those of classical Greece and Rome.

The research, centred on genome-wide data gathered from 104 individuals buried in Germany’s Lech Valley between about 2500 BCE and 1700 BCE, was conducted by researchers led by archaeo-geneticist Alissa Mittnik from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in Jena, Germany.

The scientists gathered nuclear and mitochondrial DNA from each individual and compared it to genetic databases covering ancient and modern humans. They also looked at how the graves were arranged and examined the relationship between the number and type of artefacts buried in each.

The picture that emerged was of a surprisingly stable and enduring society that depended on the import of fertile women and menial underlings. The Lech Valley hosted a farming community, Mittnik and colleagues concluded, that persisted for about 700 years.

The people of the valley were a mixture of Western Hunter-Gatherers, Anatolian Neolithic farmers and Steppe pastoralists, with the farmers’ genetic heritage becoming more dominant as the centuries passed.

Analysis of strontium and oxygen deposits in bone revealed that the men remained in the community across multiple generations – a condition known as patrilocality. The women, in contrast, were largely born outside the area – some, indeed, hailed from a region more than 350 kilometres away, on the other side of the Alps.

The absence of women genetically related to the males strongly indicates that they left the community to join other groups.

Mittnik and colleagues also looked at grave goods as signifiers of social importance.

“Certain types of grave goods, especially weapons – daggers, axes, chisels and arrow heads – in male graves and elaborate body adornments in female graves – large headdresses, massive leg rings – as well as pins in graves of both sexes are likely status-associated,” they write.

Among the cohort of corpses examined, they found examples of children and adolescents who were genetically related to adult males and who had been interred with significant artefacts. This suggests that social standing was inherited rather than earned.

They also found examples of high-status women who had not contributed genetic material to downstream males, but who nevertheless appear to have lived with families.

Some other individuals were genetically unrelated to either high status males or females, and were buried in graves with few if any grave goods. Mittnik and colleagues found that these low status people also lived in the same buildings – presumably as slaves.

The Lech Valley, the researchers note, is likely to be representative of the social conditions that persisted across much of Germany during the early Bronze Age and will therefore prompt a rethink of how communities at that time functioned.

“Considering both grave furnishings and kinship, people of different status and biological relatedness likely lived together in the same household,” they conclude, “which should therefore be seen as complex and socially stratified institutions.”

  1. https://science.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/science.aax6219
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