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Social inequality in the Upper Palaeolithic: personal ornaments from Saint-Germain-la-Rivière (Gironde, France)

Author(s): Marian VANHAEREN | Francesco d’ERRICO

Journal: The Arkeotek Journal
ISSN 1961-9863

Volume: 1;
Issue: 4;
Date: 2007;
Original page

Keywords: ornaments | red deer canines | burials | prehistoric technology | Magdalenian | prestige items | exchange networks | social ranking

Until half a century ago, hunter-gatherer cultures – whether modern, pre-modern, or prehistoric – were generally considered egalitarian. Although recent anthropological research has shown that social non-biological group distinctions, based, depending on the circumstances, on specialisation, wealth, or religious or even political power, was not exclusive to farmers (Testart 1982; Arnold 1996; Sassaman 2004; Fitzhugh 2004), it has to be admitted that little is known about the social organisation of Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer cultures. In this paper we discuss whether distinct social groups existed during this period – and the criteria allowing their identification.The archaeological material studied here includes personal ornaments found in mortuary and contemporary habitation contexts. The hypothesis is that the comparative study of mortuary and non-mortuary personal ornaments, based on a characterisation of the materials and techniques involved, can yield information on the social organisation of Palaeolithic cultures. The studied grave goods were found in the burial of Saint-Germain-La-Rivière (Gironde), dated to 15 800 ± 200 BP, and attributed to the Magdalenian. Associated with a feminine individual, it consists, amongst other, of 72 perforated red deer canines. Archaeozoological and technological analysis of these objects and the remainder of the grave goods, as well as their comparison with personal ornaments and fauna discovered in the same and other contemporary sites and burials, demonstrate the exceptional character of this burial. The large number of deer canines, the preference for those of young stag, and the few number of paired canines coming from a same animal contrast with the extreme rarity of the species in the habitation site and other contemporary sites in south-west France, which have faunas dominated by steppe species: saiga antelope, reindeer, horse. The rarity of red deer, and consequently their teeth, in such an environment, and the almost exclusive use of young stag canines – still more difficult to find in such circumstances – suggest these teeth originated from Cantabrian or Mediterranean regions where red deer was present throughout Isotopic Stage 2. Technological analysis reveals that all the canines were perforated by rotation to obtain large perforations situated in the centre of the root – which suggests a certain standardisation. Given their extreme rarity in contemporary habitation sites in south-west France, and, inversely, the presence in these sites of personal ornaments not found in the burial, the Lady of Saint-Germain-La-Rivière’s deer teeth could be prestige items indicating this woman belonged to a socially privileged group. Results seem to indicate certain Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer cultures were less egalitarian than has been supposed until now and probably characterised by complex social status systems.

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