THE idea of the “haves” and the “have-nots” may seem like a largely modern concept – but in reality social inequality dates back to the Stone Age, archaeologists have discovered.
By analysing 300 human skeletons from the early Neolithic era, scientists from three British universities have discovered that social inequality began more than 7,000 years ago.
It is the earliest evidence yet found of members of society having unequal access to land and possessions, and suggests that the concept of inherited wealth started with Neolithic man.
And they also found that, for Stone Age women, it was the norm to leave their families and move in with the families of their new husbands – a social structure known as patrilocality.
The archaeologists, from the universities of Bristol, Cardiff and Oxford, discovered that farmers buried with tools had access to better land than those buried without.
Isotope analysis was carried out on the skeletons to work out their place of origin. Those men buried with stone tools for smoothing or carving wood, known as adzes, had access to close, and probably better, land than those buried without.
Professor Alex Bentley, professor of archaeology and anthropology at the University of Bristol, said: “The men buried with adzes appear to have lived on food grown in areas of loess, the fertile and productive soil favoured by early farmers. This indicates they had consistent access to preferred farming areas.”
The strontium isotope analysis also revealed that early Neolithic women were more likely than men to have originated from areas outside those where their bodies were found. The scientists say this is a strong indication of “patrilocality” – a social system where women move to live in the location of their husband when they marry.
The strontium isotope ratios in teeth stay constant from childhood, and can be matched to the geology where they grew up, giving an insight into the location of their birth.
The evidence is backed up by other archaeological, genetic, anthropological and linguistic evidence for patrilocality in Neolithic Europe. The study authors believe the new research has implications for genetic modelling of how human populations expanded – and they believe status differences are crucial for this modelling.
Prof Bentley said: “Our results, along with archaeobotanical studies that indicate the earliest farmers of Neolithic Germany had a system of land tenure, suggest the origins of differential access to land can be traced back to an early part of the Neolithic era, rather than only to later prehistory when inequality and intergenerational wealth transfers are more clearly evidenced in burials and material culture.
“It seems the Neolithic era introduced heritable property – land and livestock – into Europe, and that wealth inequality got underway when this happened. After that there was no looking back: through the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Industrial era, wealth inequality increased but the ‘seeds’ of inequality were sown way back in the Neolithic.”
The research is published in the journal PNAS.