Copper Age: “Ivory Prince” was a woman

Copper Age princess

This is how the “Ivory Princess” could have looked a good 5000 years ago. © Miriam Lucianez Trivino

Around 5000 years ago, an unusually high-ranking and respected person was buried in southern Spain. No other dead person from the Iberian Copper Age received such a magnificently furnished grave with such exotic grave goods - even a whole elephant tusk was placed in the grave. This is one of the reasons why archaeologists long believed this person to be a man. But now enamel analysis reveals that this "ivory man" was actually a woman.

Valencina near the Spanish city of Seville is a "mega site" of the Copper Age. There, megalithic structures, tombs and huge ramparts and ditches cover more than 450 hectares. Excavations there have brought to light countless finds from the period 3200 to 2500 BC, as well as the largest collection of human bones of the entire Iberian Copper Age. This area must have been a center of Copper Age culture.

grave goods
Finds in the lower level of the tomb 10,049. © Miriam Lucianez Trivino

An unusual tomb

In 2008, a tomb that was unusual in several respects was discovered in Valencina. Only one person was buried there, while the bones of several dead people were usually found in other burial sites at this site. In addition, grave 10,049 was notable for the abundance of cinnabar, used as a red pigment, and for the abundance of grave goods, including a ceramic plate with traces of wine and cannabis, a copper bowl, and numerous flint and ivory objects. "The complete tusk of an African elephant is particularly remarkable - such a find is unique in Western Europe," explain Marta Cintas-Peña from the University of Seville and her colleagues.

The first level of the grave with the bones was later covered with large slabs of slate and other grave goods were placed on top of them: among them were other objects made of ceramics and ivory as well as objects made of materials that were exotic for this region, such as amber and ostrich eggshells. Also among them was a dagger with a blade made of rock crystal and an ivory handle decorated with 90 mother-of-pearl beads. "Judging by the quantity and quality of these finds, this person was the most socially prominent individual of the entire Copper Age pre-Bell Beaker culture in the Iberian Peninsula," write Cintas-Peña and her team.

Tooth Enamel Protein Reveals True Gender

But who was this person? Based on initial investigations, archaeologists previously assumed that the dead man was 17 to 25 years old - a young prince of the Copper Age. However, Cintas-Peña and her team wanted to find out more and performed a relatively new method of sexing this dead man. It is based on a protein important for the formation of human tooth enamel, amelogenin, which occurs in two slightly different forms in men and women. This is due to the fact that the gene responsible for this, AMELX or AMELY, is on the X chromosome in women and on the Y chromosome in men and is slightly altered when it is read.

Cintas-Peña and her colleagues therefore took samples from the tooth enamel of the "Ivory Prince" and analyzed it for the amelogenin variant. The surprising result: the teeth of the person buried in grave 10,049 contained the AMELX gene. "The sex of this person, determined by the chromosomes, was therefore female - the ivory prince was an ivory princess," states the research team. This throws the established ideas about this time and cultures overboard. “We find that the socially most senior person of the Iberian Copper Age was not a man, as previously thought, but a woman. She was a leader at a time when no man held anything remotely comparable,” said Cintas-Peña and her colleagues.

This is substantiated, among other things, by the fact that the only other dead buried with similar effort and accessories in the burial ground of Valencina were also women: they are 15 women who lived two to three generations after the "Ivory Princess". They were buried together and were adorned with plenty of cinnabar and shell beads, as the researchers report. They suspect that they may have been some kind of priestesses - they may also have been the ones who laid out the second level of grave goods in tomb 10,049. According to Cintas-Peña and her team, these results suggest that European Copper Age cultures may have been more matriarchally organized than long thought.

Source: Scientific Reports, doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-36368-x

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