It's not easy to study the elderly in a society where life was all too often cut short by disease, childbirth and injuries. But new research on people living in the Bronze Age suggests the elderly began to gain power over a 600-year period in Austria.
The findings rely on skeletal aging and a comparison of objects placed in graves of individuals of different ages. As time passed in the small farming hamlets of lower Austria, researchers reported online July 15 in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, older men began to be buried with copper axes, a privilege not granted to younger men. That might indicate that in some ancient societies, the elders were in charge, said study researcher Jo Appleby, a research fellow in archaeology and anthropology at the University of Cambridge.
"It also shows that within the past there was change in one small area in quite a limited time period," Appleby told LiveScience. "We can't assume that the elderly will have good status or bad status in any given context."
Studying the social status of the elderly is difficult, because scientists have a hard time pinning down the age of older adult bones. You can determine that a person was elderly, Appleby said, but it's hard to tell whether "elderly" meant 65 or 85.
Researchers often assume that in ancient societies, the elderly had power. But Appleby noted that in modern life, older people are often shunted aside. We assume they're forgetful or degenerating, she said. The question was whether our ancestors would have thought the same, or whether they really did respect their elders.
Appleby used data from two cemeteries in the Traisen valley of Austria. These cemeteries were the final resting places for Bronze Age farmers that populated the region about 4,000 years ago. The older cemetery was used between 2200 and 1800 B.C., while burials at the more recent cemetery took place between 1900 and 1600 B.C. [Top 10 Weird Ways We Deal With the Dead]
So many babies and children died in those days that the life expectancy of the people buried in the Traisen valley cemeteries is pegged at about 26 to 29 years. But if you made it to adulthood, Appleby said, you had a decent chance of living to your 50th birthday, as long as childbirth, violence or a farming accident didn't kill you before then.
Still, "old" would have been a relative term. Only 3.5 percent of the 714 individuals buried in the older cemetery were over 60, and only 8.8 percent of the 258 buried in the younger cemetery had reached that age. There were likely very few people walking around the Bronze Age settlements who would have been old by today's standards, Appleby said, though many would have had degenerative conditions such as arthritis that marked them as elderly for their time.
When Appleby compared the items in the graves of older people with the items in the graves of younger people, she turned up some intriguing patterns. In the earlier period, older women tended not to be buried with certain objects that appeared more frequently in younger people's graves. But the elderly weren't left with nothing, Appleby said.
"They had really good numbers of objects, and they had some of the richer objects, it was just that particular things weren't found with them," she said. For example, unlike their younger counterparts, older women didn't get buried wearing necklaces made of dog teeth.
Later, in the newer cemetery, this age differentiation vanished. Women wore different items than female children, but the age at which a woman died made no difference in her grave goods.
For men, age was at first irrelevant to jewelry and burial objects at both cemeteries. But over time, men who outlived their contemporaries seemed to gain a certain status. Unlike younger men, these older men were buried with bronze axes instead of stone ones. Metals would have still been rare and valuable at the time, Appleby said.
"There was this physical association where men who looked old and had certain types of injuries had access to these axes," she said. "We might see that as indicating that these people actually were the leaders."
In contrast, Appleby said, the skeleton of a man born with a hip defect was buried without any objects, in a small grave, facing the direction usually reserved for the burial of women. That seeming lack of effort might suggest that the disabled had lower social status than the old, she said.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.