Dental analysis provides new perspectives on the population development in southwestern Germany from the Stone Age to the Iron Age

Dental analysis provides new perspectives on the population development in southwestern Germany from the Stone Age to the Iron Age

Researchers have brought a new perspective to the population mobility in southwestern Germany from the end of the Stone Age to the Iron Age using a newly developed dental analysis method.

The team consisted of researchers from the State Office for the Preservation of Historic Monuments, Senckenberg, and the University of Tübingen, who examined human teeth obtained from Stone Age and Iron Age graves.

The team, consisting of researchers from the State Office for the Preservation of Historic Monuments, Senckenberg, and the University of Tübingen, examined human teeth obtained from Stone Age and Iron Age graves using a newly developed analysis method called FLEXDIST. This method allows the determination of genetically determined similarities and differences among individuals based on specific dental features. Characteristics such as the number and size of cusps on molars are hereditary and provide information about biological distance, i.e., the similarity between individuals. Thus, dental analysis can be compared to genetic tests.

The study focuses on four burial sites in the Neckar and Tauber regions, spanning a period from 2800 BC to 1600 BC. These are the two largest necropolises of the Neckar Group, a previously understudied regional group of the Early Bronze Age in southwestern Germany. Previous genetic and isotopic studies conducted in various regions of Europe have provided evidence of migration from the southern Russian steppe regions around 3000 BC and indicated high population dynamics during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.

The specific morphology of recognizable teeth in the upper jaw of an individual from Early Bronze Age Ammerbuch Reusten allows for conclusions to be drawn about the biological similarity of the buried individuals. Photo: S. Lismann, University of Tübingen.

The new method now demonstrates a similar population development from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age in a previously poorly researched section of southwestern Germany. The results of the study indicate a general continuity of the population during that time, but biological variability decreased between the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. This is likely due to the assimilation of populations from different backgrounds, including both ancient Neolithic and steppe-origin individuals. For the Early Iron Age between 750 BC and 450 BC, there is much greater diversity, indicating increased population movements currently or since the mid-2nd millennium BC. Additionally, the results indicate an increased mobility of individuals before reaching adulthood, possibly due to the exchange of foster children or spouses.

The newly developed FLEXDIST method can handle highly complex and fragmented datasets. Therefore, it is applicable not only to paleoanthropology but also to many other areas of archaeological research, such as archaeozoology or lithic artifact analysis, as emphasized by the study’s lead author, Hannes Rathmann (SHEP).

The findings of these studies have now been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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