Exotic luxury goods such as elephant tusks from Africa, amber beads from the north, rock crystals, flints and ostrich eggshells: The set of precious objects that Spanish archaeologists found in 2008 in a burial site dated to the Copper Age (ca. 3200-2200 BC) in southern Spain, in Valencina near Seville, was extraordinary. It is the grave of a woman, but based on the social position of the buried person, the skeleton was initially identified as male.
Now, 15 years later, further research reveals a surprise: using tooth enamel analysis, a new scientific method of sex determination, a team of archaeologists, including researchers from the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) and the University of Vienna as well as the Medical University of Vienna, prove that the person is biologically female. The results of the study have been published in the renowned journal Nature Scientific Reports.
Enamel analysis shows gender
Due to the climatic conditions, DNA analyses are often difficult in the Mediterranean region. Prehistoric bones are often poorly preserved because of the high temperatures and dry air in Spanish burial sites, explains Katharina Rebay-Salisbury from the Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) and the University of Vienna.
This is why archaeologists, together with chemists and forensic doctors, developed a method for analysing tooth enamel: »Our method is based on the analysis of gender-specific peptides, i.e. molecules made up of amino acids, which occur in different isoforms of the amelogenin in the enamel of male and female teeth «, says Katharina Rebay-Salisbury.
Gender stereotypes in archaeology
The quantity and quality of the artefacts used as burial objects ‒ including a particularly beautiful dagger with a blade made of rock crystal and an ivory handle decorated with 90 openwork disc-shaped pearls made of mother-of-pearl - indicate in any case that this woman was a leading social figure. She could have lived as an ivory trader or priestess, for example, and was therefore buried accordingly, according to the archaeologist.
However, the grave find not only tells us about how the women's life could have been possibly like, but also about how ideas of the present shape the interpretation of the past: »Ideas often dominate according to which all leadership positions were occupied by men in the earliest period of human history. With this discovery, many of our gender stereotypes are thrown overboard«, says Rebay-Salisbury.
For the researchers, this study also represents an anticipation of the changes that new scientific methods could bring to prehistoric archaeology and the study of human social development.