Ancient Graves Reveal Wealth Gap Existed Even in the Stone Age

The Neolithic times had the haves and the have-nots too.
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For illustrative purposes only. Photo courtesy of Mitja Juraja / Pexels

There's no better time for an awakening about societal disparities than now. After all, income inequalities across societies and communities have only become more evident in a time as dire as the pandemic. But a new study says wealth gaps in communities date even further back than we would have thought. New archaeological research reveals that some people were buried with more valuable artefacts than others, even in the Neolithic times—a period that dates as back as 12,000 years ago.


The study, published in archeology journal Antiquity in August, is based on the findings from prehistoric graves found in the town of Oslonki in Poland. The archeologists had initially sought the graves out to study more about neolithic farmers' eating habits. It just so happened that they found that the diets that were the richest were of the people who were buried with the most valuable artefacts.

Initially, when they came across skeletons buried with copper items—including some of the first copper artefacts in Northern Europe—they considered the possibility that wealthy graves may not necessarily reflect an individual’s wealth. They could, in any case, also be funerary donations to valued community members. So, to investigate further, they examined isotopes in skeletons.

Carbon-13 isotopes in the skeletons accumulate in food sources at different rates and are subsequently incorporated into human tissue, thus giving us a potential glimpse at the person's diet during their life. The scientists examined the bones of 30 people, all buried within the same 200 years, and found that skeletons containing more isotopes were often buried with ornate goods, often made of copper. Specifically, the larger number of isotopes indicates they likely had greater access to cattle from large fields and lush pastures.

“In the case of Osłonki, we can see that the presence of copper objects in some graves—an exotic material that would have been imported from great distance—is linked with differences in the diets during the lifetimes of these individuals,” told Prof Peter Bogucki of Princeton University who was involved in the research, to Heritage Daily.

As farming land is often inherited, it raises the possibility that this inequality was multi-generational and deeply rooted in the society. The researchers theorise that humans who had arrived early at the village would have claimed the best pastures and then kept them in the family to create a long-term wealth gap in their community.

During this time, it appears the artefacts humans were buried with were not just funerary donations by family members, but direct transfers of material wealth from life into death. As many of the valuable grave goods were imported over long distances, with copper for these artefacts originating hundreds of kilometres away in south-central Europe, it appears that their farming wealth translated into increased trading opportunities as well. This is another line of evidence that suggests they belonged to the richest.

“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," said the lead author of the study, Chelsea Budd.

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