CNN reports on a Spanish discovery that a 5,000-year-old skeleton buried with an elephant tusk, an ostrich egg, an ivory comb and two daggers – one ivory and the other amber – is not, as previously assumed, a young man ready for combat. A new molecular study has thrown gender assumptions out the window by showing that the skeleton, obviously held in reverence by those who buried the body, belonged to a young woman:
“This came as a surprise. So, this actually forced us to rethink everything about this site,” said study author Leonardo García Sanjuán, a professor of prehistory at the University of Seville.
What they learned about the woman and the society she lived in opens a new window on the past and will likely force many to reconsider traditionally held views about prehistory.
“In the past, it was not uncommon for an archaeologist to find (remains) and say, ‘OK, this individual has a sword and a shield. Therefore, he’s a man.’ Of course, deeply mistaken, because it assumes that in the past gender roles were the way we conceive them today,” García Sanjuán said.
The newer method to determine the sex of old bones — first used in 2017 — involves analyzing tooth enamel, which contains a type of protein with a sex-specific peptide called amelogenin that can be identified in a lab.
Analysis of a molar and an incisor from the skeleton detected the presence of the AMELX gene — which produces amelogenin and is located on the X chromosome — indicating that the remains were female rather than male, according to the study.
In other studies, the technique has also been used to dispel the cliché of “man the hunter” that has informed much thinking about early humans.
What’s more, she added, the method can be applied to both adult and childhood teeth and is particularly useful for the latter. That’s because it’s impossible to tell the sex of children’s skeletons until they go through puberty.
The grave goods — including items she was buried with and some, such as the crystal dagger, that were added later — are the most valuable of those found at more than 2,000 known prehistoric graves discovered in Spain and Portugal. No male tomb of a similar status has been found from that era in the region.
The region’s only comparably lavish tomb, containing at least 15 women, was found about 100 meters (328 feet) away from the grave of the Ivory Lady and is presumed to have been built by people who claimed descent from her. This suggests that women occupied positions of leadership in Iberian Copper Age society, at a time when a more hierarchical society was beginning to emerge in Europe, according to the research.
The study authors say it’s unlikely her high status was a birthright because there are no infant burials in the region that contain grave goods. They believe the Ivory Lady achieved her status through her own merit.
“She must have been highly charismatic person. She probably traveled or did have connections with people from faraway lands,” García Sanjuán said.
Her other source of influence could have been esoteric or magical, he added. She had high levels of mercury in her bones, which could have come from burning or using cinnabar — a substance that has an intoxicating effect.
You can read more of García Sanjuán’s research here, in Scientific Reports.