Friday, November 21, 2008

Empirical Insights into Prehistoric Social Organization

So, by now, you've probably heard more than you care to hear about the discovery of the oldest nuclear family in one of a series of multiple burials discovered at the Neolithic Corded Ware Culture site of Eulau, which dates to about 4,600BP (Haak et al. 2008). Most of the media hoopla surrounding the publication of this discovery has centered on the notion of 'nuclear family.' Fair enough, it's something that most denizens on the web and most newspaper readers will readily relate to, which - especially for the 'traditional family values' crowd - is a good way to pitch a legitimate and relatively groundbreaking scientific discovery. In my view, however, this frenzy over the identification of a nuclear family organization has drowned a much more important and far-ranging conclusion of this paper...

As luck would have it, I was introducing my 'Archaeological Methods' students this week to the wonders of cognitive archaeology, whereby archaeologists attempt to understand the motivations and social organization of long-lost groups and individuals. The paper by Haak et al. (2008) featured extensively in the lecture - indeed, I may have overenthusiastically declared that I was "in love" with this paper. The reason I was so enthused about this paper is encapsulated in this figure (Haak et al. 2008: Figure 5) of the paper, which summarizes the results of the strontium isotope analysis.

In a nutshell, the male symbols indicate the strontium signature of adult males, circles indicate those of children, while female symbols indicate those of females. By way of background, strontium isotopes derive from the soils of a region and are stored in teeth during childhood as resources collected from that soil were consumed. Because of that they are different between individuals or groups of individuals that come from areas with distinct geological substrates. In this case,there is a clear separation between the females' overall signature and that of the other individuals, which indicates that males and children have signatures similar to that of the geological substrate of Eulau, while the females display a signature more concordant with that of Paleozoic deposits found in the Harz Mountains, about 60km distant from Eulau. That may not seem like a huge distance, but for relatively sedentary folks like the Neolithic agriculturalists of Eulau, this means that they probably grew up as members of other social groups located near the Harz Mountains.

Why is this significant? Because it provides some empirical evidence for the fact that the Neolithic people of Eulau had an exogamous, patrilocal system in place whereby women from a distant area would come live with men who lived their whole life in the Eulau region, where they would raise the children they had with them (as demonstrated by the DNA analyses that form the basis of the 'nuclear family' claim). So these groups were exogamous, in that they selected mates/married outside their group, and they were patrilocal, in that the basic reproductive unit/family lived in the vicinity of where the males had grown up. To me, this is incredibly fascinating in that it allows archaeologists to make empirically grounded inferences about domains of Neolithic life that are usually thought not to be accessible to prehistorians. Indeed, this allows us to talk objectively about aspects of prehistoric social behavior, which is tricky indeed to speculate about in most cases. We may yet be getting to the point where we can show that archaeology is anthropology.... Binford would be proud!


Haak, W., G. Brandt, H.N. de Jong, C. Meyer, R. Ganslmeier, V. Heyd, C. Hawkesworth, A.W.G. Pike, H. Meller, and K.W. Alt. 2008. Ancient DNA, Strontium isotopes, and osteological analyses shed light on social and kinship organization of the Later Stone Age. PNAS 105:18226-18231. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0807592105

1 comment:

Mick Morrison said...

This is a good post about some interesting results. It are results such as these that highlight the importance of using all available techniques to shed light on the material evidence being looked at, sadly an all too uncommon practice in a lot of archaeology these days.