Women gave stability to the ancient society of the Orkney Islands

(ORDO NEWS) — The settlements of the Bronze Age flourished thanks to the fact that innovations were brought to them by the “weaker” sex, without breaking the existing social structures.

Continental migrants who came to Britain reached this remote Scottish archipelago, but could not displace the locals. Such conclusions were made on the basis of the analysis of ancient DNA.

The journal Antiquity published a new work by Scottish scientists, in which they spoke about the study of the burials of the settlement of Links of Notland on the island of Westray (part of the Orkney archipelago).

Previous work has also analyzed data from this archaeological site. But now the authors (another scientific group) were interested not only in the DNA of the buried, but also in ritual details.

Women gave stability to the ancient society of the Orkney Islands 2

Judging by the finds, people lived in Lynx of Notland as early as the 4th millennium BC. Both in the Neolithic and in the Bronze Age it was quite a prosperous agricultural settlement.

During previous excavations, archaeologists have discovered more than 35 buildings, including houses, workshops and a bathhouse, as well as a cemetery containing the remains of about 105 people.

In 2009, they found a diamond shaped figurine called the “Westray Wife” (aka Orkney Venus), which is considered the earliest depiction of a human face ever found in Scotland.

The cemetery, which became the object of the study, is located at an approximately equal distance from several large households.

On it, scientists discovered completely unexpected data: about half of the buried were inhumed (the rite of burial), and the rest were cremated (the rite of cremation).

The dating of two different burial rites coincides. Usually this happens under the influence of the arrival of an external culture.

At the same time, there are practically no traces of the bell shaped goblets culture on Orkney , which is traditionally associated with the migration of Indo Europeans to Western Europe.

Women gave stability to the ancient society of the Orkney Islands 3

Scientists analyzed the DNA of the buried and came to the conclusion that representatives of three families with a long history of male lines were buried in this cemetery. That is, the men of each family remained in place and inherited the family home, while the women moved.

In addition, the researchers found that the number of households was stable. This indicates that the property was not divided among several heirs.

Surprisingly, this applies only to the Bronze Age – in the Neolithic, the number of households increased. This change provided each settlement with sufficient resources to survive in the harsh conditions of the Orkney archipelago.

A comparison of genetic lines from the Links of Notland cemetery with others found on the islands of the archipelago showed the following. First, most of the non-native genes were brought from the continent by women (mitochondrial DNA).

Secondly, it was they who migrated already on the Orkneys themselves – both between settlements and between islands. This is the patrilocal principle of inheritance: spouses live where the husband’s father lived.

According to scientists, the fact that mostly women came (or were brought) from the continent became the basis for the well-being of the archipelago in the Bronze Age.

Women brought new cultural elements, but did not impose them. They were part of families that, in turn, considered cultural innovations and accepted or rejected them and sometimes reworked them in their own way.

This fully explains the almost complete absence of traces of the bell-shaped cup culture on the islands. The bearers of this culture integrated into an already established community and therefore left so little archaeological evidence.

At the same time, thanks to the influx of migrants, life on Orkney did not remain completely unchanged. New ways of forming community and identity have emerged. Simply put, an increasingly diverse population was united through common rituals and activities, resulting in social stability.

There was also the introduction of new technologies and methods of farming. The combination of new and old ideas predetermined a peaceful and productive period.

This is a surprising conclusion, because the Indo-European expansion of the early Bronze Age is usually seen as a threat to the old Neolithic communities. But in the case of Orkney, such migration coincided with a period of social stability.


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