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A study of teeth from skeletons buried in megalithic graves and caves in northern Iberia has revealed the presence of culturally distinct communities with different lifestyles coexisting in a small region during the Late Neolithic period (3500-2900 BCE). The international team of researchers led by Oxford University Professor Teresa Fernández-Crespo includes VUB archaeologist Christophe Snoeck and geochemist Niels de Winter. Their results suggest “a degree of socio-cultural complexity not previously appreciated”, providing insights into more than a century of debate about why Neolithic people used different burial locations in western Europe.

 

It had been thought that such distinctions in burial practices might reflect different socio-economic or cultural backgrounds, but it was impossible until now to demonstrate this, or the extent of such differentiation and the degree of interaction between those buried in caves and megalithic graves.

 

“The results show significant differences between the skeletons from the caves and the megalithic graves from early childhood,” says Professor Snoeck, of VUB’s Analytical, Environmental and Geo- Chemistry research group. “Since these differences also overlap with differences in funeral practices, we may be dealing here with the existence of a deep cultural division. This early example of socio-economic asymmetries can help us address fundamental questions about the origins of inequality and differences that have characterised human societies for millennia.”

 

Teeth are biological ‘hard-drives’; they hold essential information about the growth and development of the individual during their formation. Taking advantage of isotope composition as proxies for diet and mobility, and the incremental formation of tooth structures, the researchers analysed the molars of 32 Late Neolithic individuals from six sites in northern Iberia to reconstruct the early life-history of each individual during infancy and childhood.

 

The results showed significant differences in all isotope systems between people buried in caves and megalithic graves from early childhood onwards. Since these distinctions also overlap with distinctions in funerary practices, the authors suggest the existence of a profound cultural division.

 

The project was carried out at Oxford University and was led by Professor Teresa Fernández-Crespo.

 

Fernández-Crespo T, Snoeck C, Ordoño J, de Winter NJ, Czermak A, Mattielli N, Lee-Thorp JA, Schulting RJ, Multi-isotope evidence for the emergence of cultural alterity in Late Neolithic Europe, Sci. Adv. 2020; 6: aay2169 22 January 2020