Bronze Age Diet and Farming Practices Reconstructed Using Isotopes

(CN) – New chemical research into one of Europe’s earliest communities sheds more light into the group’s complexities of class and social hierarchy in the Bronze Age.

A study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE details how a team of researchers conducted a deep examination of the history of El Algar, an early European society that lived on the Iberian Peninsula some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. The Bronze Age community has been largely regarded as one of the earliest examples of complex European life, complete with a social ladder, economic classes and even special burial customs for those who were deemed superior members of society.

The arrow marks the summit of the hilltop settlement La Bastida in what is now Spain. The fertile valley of the Guadalentín can be seen in the background. (©ASOME, UAB)

While the intricacies of El Algar and its people have often been explored in previous scientific efforts, researchers spearheading Wednesday’s study decided to tackle El Algar from a different approach: isotope analysis.

To accomplish this, researchers used detailed isotope examination techniques to study surviving archaeological samples taken from La Bastida and Gatas, two hilltop El Algar settlements in what is now Spain. Researchers examined over 100 different samples such as human remains, deer bones and even burned wheat to better understand the details surrounding one of Europe’s oldest and most complicated communities.

Researchers found through this isotope analysis that individuals higher up the social chain in La Bastida, by far the larger and more protected of the two settlements, contained higher amounts of carbon and nitrogen. This, the researchers say, may suggest that those belonging to the upper echelons of El Algar society had more access to foods with higher carbon and nitrogen compounds, such as animal-based proteins.

Interestingly, researchers found this divide was not split along gender lines, as researchers could find few notable isotopic differences between men and women.

Researchers say, however, that this may not paint the entire picture. Researchers also found nitrogen levels in animals at La Bastida were much higher than the animals at Gatas, though nitrogen levels in barley were mostly the same at the settlements. The study authors suggest this may point to agriculture and animal management factors as the reason for the chemical differences between the two settlements, with those in urban areas practicing taking better care of their livestock than their non-urban counterparts.

The study notes these discoveries were made possible through a more comprehensive look into several El Algar samples, one that considered much more than just the raw data taken from human skeletons.

“Human bone data alone would have suggested that dietary habits at both investigated sites differed significantly, and the inhabitants of La Bastida enjoyed larger shares of meat and dairy products indicating economic and/or political superiority over those at Gatas,” the study states. “However, extending the analysis to grains and animal bones showed that the differences were caused by the economic practices and, more specifically, by the closer management of agriculture and husbandry in the urban center.”

Researchers say this study should emphasize to others the importance of considering data that captures multiple angles of a given field, and that data is always better when it is infused with context and diverse perspectives.

Corina Knipper, first author of the study, says this research helps to illustrate the importance of adopting this more comprehensive investigative approach when it comes to these types of research efforts.

“It is essential to not only investigate human remains, but also comparative samples of different former foodstuffs as well as to interpret the data in the light of the archaeological and social historical context,” Knipper said with the release of the study.

Even with this broader approach, however, researchers say there is still much to be learned about El Algar and that only so much detail can be gleaned from isotope analysis alone. Concentrated nitrogen levels found in the remains of human bones and burned crops, though valuable, cannot paint a complete picture of El Algar society, particularly when it is not supported by additional viewpoints.

Researchers therefore stress how it is imperative that future research efforts considering the larger historical context are needed before we can truly explore the societal mysteries surrounding one of Europe’s earliest and most complex societies.

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