Tooth analysis suggests the highest status person in Copper Age Iberia was no man

An ‘Ivory Man’ has been uncovered to secretly be an ‘Ivory Lady’ after a new teeth analysis on a 4,800-year-old individual.

The woman is the highest status individual known in the Iberian Copper Age society, due to lavish grave goods such as ivory tusks and a rock crystal dagger buried with her.

“Through the analysis of sexually dimorphic amelogenin peptides in tooth enamel, we establish that the most socially prominent person of the Iberian Copper Age (c. 3200–2200 BC) was not male, as previously thought, but female,” the authors write in their new paper, published in Scientific Reports.

“The analysis of this woman, discovered in 2008 at Valencina, Spain, reveals that she was a leading social figure at a time where no male attained a remotely comparable social position.”

The Ivory Lady was alive between 4,900 and 4,650 years ago, in the south of what is now Spain, on the Iberian Peninsula.

“The individual buried in it was first identified as a probable young male between 17 and 25 years of age at the time of death based on standard anthropological analysis,” the team write.

“The quantity and quality of the artefact assemblage used as burial offering implies that this young person was the most socially prominent individual in the whole pre-Beaker Copper Age of the Iberian Peninsula.”

The pre-Beaker Copper Age was a time before the development of ceramics such as ‘bell beakers’,  while copper metallurgy and fortified settlements were just beginning.

The person – who we now know was a female – was buried with a large ceramic plate (which contained chemical traces of wine and cannabis), a small, pointed copper tool for piercing holes called an awl, and multiple flint and ivory objects.

One of the objects was a full African elephant tusk, weighing 1.8 kg, which the team suggest is unparalleled in western Europe.

The paper suggests scientists might need to reassess how they think about women in this ancient society.

Image three
Individual buried in the lower level of the structure 10.049, and main artefacts deposited around the body. Credit: Miriam Lucianez Trivino.

Not only was the highest ranked person in Iberian Copper Age society a woman, the team suggest that because there was a lack of grave goods at infant burials, the Ivory Lady achieved her status through merit and achievement, not just being born into the right family.

The only comparably lavish Copper Age tomb in the area called Montelirio tholos was also made for women – at least 15 of the 20 who were buried there. But this was found next to the Ivory Lady’s grave, and it is thought that these people may have come afterwards and may have been religious specialists to the Ivory Lady.

“Neither in Valencina nor in the whole of the Iberian Copper Age has any other grave been found which remotely compares in material wealth and sophistication to these two graves,” the researchers say.

“These results raise entirely new questions regarding the nature of early forms of political leadership not only in Valencina but among Iberian Copper Age communities as a whole, the role played by women within them, and the specific relationship of ‘The Ivory Lady’ with the people buried in the neighbouring Montelirio tholos.”

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