Data obtained by researcher Teresa Fernández-Crespo from seven megalithic graves (dolmens) in La Rioja and Araba-Álava appear to suggest that certain individuals in the Neolithic period were excluded from burial within these monuments on the basis of age and sex.
The research uses evidence obtained from dolmens located in northern Spain, and is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Masking a hierarchical system?
The use of communal burial monuments may be masking a funerary system that marginalised a certain proportion of the population, and is in contradiction to the generally accepted view of the egalitarian Neolithic society.
“In the article we propose that the people buried were intentionally selected. We do so by basing this on the fact that the demographic composition of the megaliths displays significant anomalies with respect to a normal population of an ancient type. The bias identified, which almost systematically affects children under five, but certain adults as well, above all female ones, could be indicating that access to graves was restricted to those people who enjoyed certain rights and privileges only, against what is usually maintained in the traditional archaeological literature,” says Teresa Fernandez-Crespo.
The research looked at seven dolmens: two of them located in Araba-Álava and five within the region of La Rioja. The number of individuals found in these seven megalithic graves ranges between less than ten (in the case of Fuente Morena, for example) and over a hundred subjects (in the case of Alto de la Huesera), making a total of 248.
With respect to the idea that the monuments were burial spaces reserved for a specific group within the population represents one possible explanation says Fernández-Crespo, and could be related to the differing status of individuals.
“If we accept this hypothesis, it would be plausible that the remains of those who had a lower social position (and for that reason may not have met the access requirements to be included in the dolmens) were laid to rest in other burial structures the building and maintenance of which would require less effort, like, for example, natural caves, sheltered spaces under rock or pits. However, the current state of the research does not allow the refutation that other causes relating to the population or culture could account for this selection of those buried. In this respect, it is possible that the analysis of stable isotopes that we are currently carrying out at Oxford University on the skeletal remains from some of these graves could shed some light on the matter“.