Equality between men and women existed in Valais 6,000 years ago

Equality between men and women existed in Valais 6,000 years ago
Equality between men and women existed in Valais 6,000 years ago

One of the bodies discovered in the Barmaz necropolis.


The Neolithic marks the beginning of livestock breeding and agriculture. In Switzerland, this period extends between 5500 and 2200 BCE. The first agropastoral communities thus gradually moved from an economy of predation, where hunting and gathering provided the nutrients essential for survival, to an economy of production. These profound changes are disrupting eating habits and the functioning dynamics of populations. The bones and teeth of individuals retain chemical traces that scientists now know how to detect and interpret.

A team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) studied the bones of individuals buried 6,000 years ago in the Barmaz necropolis, in Valais, one of the oldest Neolitic populations known in French-speaking Switzerland. The objective of the study carried out by Déborah Rosselet-Christ, doctoral student at the Laboratory of African Archeology and Anthropology of the Faculty of Sciences of UNIGE, is the application of isotopic analysis on human remains, in order to learn more about their diet and mobility.

Isotopes reveal what they ate

The levels of certain isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and strontium in fact depend on the environment in which each individual lives and feeds. Isotopes are atoms that have the same number of electrons and protons, but different numbers of neutrons. This very fine and delicate technique is applied for the first time on Alpine agropastoral populations from the Middle Neolithic in French-speaking Switzerland.

Excavated in the 1950s and 1990s, the Barmaz site, in Collombey-Muraz in the Valais Chablais, is one of the oldest vestiges of agropastoral societies in French-speaking Switzerland retaining human remains. It is made up of two necropolises having contained the bones of around seventy individuals. For her master’s work, Déborah Rosselet-Christ, first author of the study published in the “Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports”, selected 49 (as many women as men) from whom she systematically took samples. collagen on some bones as well as fragments of enamel from their second molar.

“The second molar is a tooth whose crown is formed between the ages of three and eight,” explains the researcher. “Once formed, tooth enamel is no longer renewed throughout the rest of life. Its chemical composition is therefore a reflection of the environment in which its owner lived during his or her childhood.

14% foreigners

The analysis of the 49 individuals from Barmaz reveals great homogeneity in the majority of them and markedly different values ​​in only 14% of the samples, indicating that they were people of a different origin.

“The technique makes it possible to determine that these are individuals who did not live the first years of their life where they were buried, but it is more difficult to determine where they come from,” says Jocelyne. Desideri, lecturer in the same laboratory and last author of the article. “Our results show that people were moving around at that time. This is not a surprise, several studies highlight the same phenomenon in other places and at other times of the Neolithic.”

Collagen allows the determination of isotope ratios of carbon (δ13C), nitrogen (δ15N) and sulfur (δ34S). Each measurement provides information on specific aspects of the diet, such as categories of plants, the quantity of animal proteins or the intake of aquatic animals. As bones are constantly renewing themselves, the results only concern the last years of an individual’s life.

An equality that is not found everywhere

The scientists were able to deduce that these ancient residents of the Barmaz region had a diet based on terrestrial (and not aquatic) resources with a very high consumption of animal proteins. “What is more interesting is that we did not measure any differences between men and women,” notes Déborah Rosselet-Christ. “Not even between locals and non-locals. These results therefore suggest equal access to food resources between the different members of the group, regardless of their origin or gender. It’s not always the case. For example, we find dietary differences according to sex in Neolithic populations in the south of France.

The scientists were, however, able to demonstrate that the people buried of non-local origin were only buried in one of the necropolises (Barmaz I) and that higher levels of the nitrogen isotope were measured in the other. (Barmaz II). The two necropolises being contemporary and only 150 meters apart, this last observation raises the question of whether there is a difference in social status between the two groups of deceased. “Our isotopic measurements offer an interesting complement to other approaches used in archaeology,” believes Jocelyne Desideri. “They make it possible to clarify the image that we are trying to draw of the life of these first Alpine agropastoral societies, of the relationship between individuals and their mobility.”



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