In a remarkable study, a team of scientists have discovered that about 4,000 years ago it was the woman who left her family to cling to her husband. Using a variety of techniques, from carbon dating, DNA analysis, and isotope ratio measurement to analyzing archeological grave findings, the researchers were able to document a complex social structure lasting over multiple generations in the southern German region of the Lech River. It was only by combining these various techniques that scientists determined how these individuals lived.
DNA analysis revealed that family lines consisted of males buried in grave plots with females who came from other regions – sometimes as far as 350 kilometers away. The plots contained no family-related females older than 15 to 17, suggesting that females left the family at marriage age. This, combined with the unrelated status of mothers, suggests social mobility for females paired with male-based stability and inheritance. Analysis of chemical isotope ratios in individuals’ teeth suggests that the females came from far away. And isotope ratios also suggest that some males traveled at adolescence and returned to their family in adulthood.
The combination of carbon dating to indicate which graves were of the same age and analysis of DNA and grave goods (items of value buried with the body) revealed that household structure consisted of family members buried with copper and bronze items and unrelated individuals buried in the same plot but with no burial goods. The authors suggest this implies a social structure of well-established family farms with low-status servants or slaves in the same household. The grave plots also contained mysterious high-status females (as assessed by grave goods) unrelated to others in the plots, perhaps suggesting that their children were sent back to their original families.
What is remarkable about this archeological work is how it involved multiple teams of researchers and how it is only in the combination of these various techniques that the picture of life in this Bronze Age culture could be revealed. First, the careful excavation of the graves revealed individuals with differing social status among both males and females. Then carbon dating was able to establish the age of these individuals. Subsequent DNA analysis of 104 individuals showed relatives up to the fifth degree allowing researchers to build several family trees spanning four to five generations. Strontium and oxygen ratios in teeth indicated who wasn’t a local – mostly females rather than males and children.
Such multidiscipline work is becoming the norm in many areas of science. If you look at lists of authors for articles in major scientific journals, you rarely see only one or two names. This study of Bronze Age genomes involved 24 authors from 13 institutions. For studies in other areas, ranging from subatomic physics to DNA analysis of populations, from neuroscience to clinical studies of new treatments, the author list can stretch to almost a full page. The available techniques of science have become so complex and rich that no one or two individuals can master them, and only by working together can their benefit be multiplied.
This increase in partnerships across multiple disciplines in science draws us back to the words of God in Genesis 2:18: “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will give him a helper as a partner.” Perhaps this sentence applies even beyond marriage.
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