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Study challenges egalitarian view of Neolithic societies

Challenging the prevailing notion of egalitarian societies during the late Neolithic and Chalcolithic ages, the research titled “Demographic evidence of selective burial in megalithic graves of northern Spain” by Teresa Fernández-Crespo and Concepción de la Rúa, from the Department of Genetics, Physical Anthropology, and Animal at UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country, introduces a different perspective. Published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, this study is part of Fernández-Crespo's PhD thesis, “Anthropología y prácticas funerarias en las poblaciones neolíticas finales y calcolíticas de la región natural de La Rioja” (Anthropology and funeral practices in late Neolithic and Chalcolithic populations in the natural region of La Rioja).

Examining data from seven megalithic graves in La Rioja and Araba-Álava, the research suggests that certain individuals were excluded from burial based on “criteria relating to age and possibly sex.” This finding challenges the notion of a shared burial area as a symbol of egalitarianism in megalithic societies, suggesting that it might conceal the privileges of emerging hierarchized communities.

Teresa Fernández-Crespo explains, “In the article, we propose that the people buried were intentionally selected. We do so by basing ourselves on the fact that the demographic composition of the megaliths displays significant anomalies with respect to a natural population of an type.” The identified bias, predominantly affecting children under five and certain adult females, hints at restricted access to graves for individuals with specific rights and privileges.

Studying seven dolmens, including locations in Araba-Álava and La Rioja, the research highlights anomalies in the number of individuals found in these megalithic graves, challenging traditional archaeological interpretations. The total count of individuals across the seven graves ranges from less than ten to over a hundred, shedding light on potential social differentiations in burial practices during this historical period.

Isotope analysis

Regarding the notion that megalithic monuments served as burial spaces exclusively reserved for a specific segment of the population, Teresa Fernández-Crespo suggests one plausible explanation, although not the sole one. According to her, this could be linked to varying social statuses within the community. Fernández-Crespo states, “If we accept this hypothesis, it would be plausible that the remains of those who had a lower social position… were laid to rest in other burial structures requiring less effort, like natural caves or sheltered spaces under rock.” However, the current state of research doesn't definitively rule out other potential causes tied to the population or culture influencing the selection of individuals buried in these sites.

Fernández-Crespo notes that ongoing stable isotope analysis at Oxford University on skeletal remains from these graves might provide additional insights into this matter, potentially offering a clearer understanding of the reasons behind the selective burial practices observed in these megalithic sites.

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