A Woman Was the Highest Ranked Person in Copper Age Spain

In 2008, archaeologists discovered the “Ivory Merchant” in a tomb on the Iberian Peninsula. The person lived between 2,900 and 2,650 BC in the Copper Age. The grave was filled with such extravagant items as ivory tusks, amber, a crystal dagger, and ostrich eggs. Archaeologists assumed that the individual was a man, but it turns out she was a woman.

The teeth held the key

Originally, researchers believed the body was of a man because of an analysis of the pelvis. However, a new team demonstrated that the pelvis was so poorly preserved that the sex was still up for debate.

The enamel in the skeleton’s teeth contained the AMELX gene found on a human’s X chromosome. “This analysis told us precisely that the skeleton was female,” historian Garcia Sanjuan explained.

The woman was the highest-ranked person in her community. “The burial is special because it contains only one individual and isn’t a mass grave with commingled bones. When we compared the grave goods with our database [of more than 2,000 grave sites in the area], we can clearly see that this woman stood head and shoulders above other individuals in terms of wealth and social status,” Sanjuan told Live Science.

The team thinks she held both political and religious importance. She may have been the leader or founder of an Iberian clan.

The Ivory Lady was buried with extravagant items.

The Ivory Lady was buried with extravagant items. Photo: Miriam Lucianez Trivino


Copper Age society

Tombs and burials in the area give us a glimpse of society in the Copper Age. Near the Ivory Lady’s tomb, there was a second, fairly luxurious, tomb. It contains the remains of 15 women. The team believe these women were potentially descendants of the Ivory Lady. All other burials seem to be in mass graves.

The Ivory Lady’s bones show that she took part in physical labor. “This is a leader who leads through example. She did not have a life of comfort or luxury,” Sanjuan said.

Researchers also found traces of wine, cannabis, and cinnabar near the body, items used in religious ceremonies at the time. There was also a complete African elephant tusk in her tomb. Traveling to other regions would have placed her in high regard. “Mobility is something that’s very closely linked to power,” Samantha Scott Reiter from the National Museum of Denmark told Science.org.

This is not the first time that researchers have assumed that a skeleton with an impressive burial was a man. “This is a poor scientific practice and a cautionary tale,” the researchers said.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.