How women led a prehistoric Scottish settlement to a period of prosperity


New research has shed new light on the impact that female-dominated migration had on a Scottish village thousands of years ago.

Published in the journal Antiquity, a recent study of a 4,000-year-old village in the Links of Noltland, located on the island of Westray in the Orkney archipelago of northern Scotland, has found that a wave of migration, led by women, resulted in a period of peace and productivity, researchers say in a news release.

The researchers paired ancient DNA, or aDNA, with more than 100 burials from a Noltland cemetery, including a large tomb used for centuries as a family vault.

They say that the aDNA offers evidence that an influx of non-local people occurred in Orkney during the Bronze Age.

The researchers say while the female-dominated influx to Noltland didn’t lead to large cultural changes, which in turn made it “archeologically invisible,” it had a unique impact on the site’s genetic makeup.

“The DNA shows that the community at Links of Noltland was composed of local males and incoming females of continental descent,” said Graeme Wilson from EASE Archaeology.

“The DNA shows not only the fact of immigration but also the way in which it was mediated.”

The study follows recent research from Orkney suggesting that large-scale immigration, mostly by women, occurred between the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age, which in Orkney occurred between 2,500 and 800 BC.

Considered one of the best preserved and most extensive prehistoric settlements in Scotland, research into aDNA from the site points to a migration of people with mainland European ancestry, who spread across Britain including Orkney.

Wilson says the lineages of men in Noltland can be traced back to the original Neolithic population, offering evidence of a possible system of patrilineal inheritance where household and land rights were passed down through the male line.

Household numbers appeared stable, suggesting property was not split between multiple heirs.

However, the long male lineage, the researchers say, indicates that men remained and inherited while females moved out.

“These results demonstrate how Orkney was taking part in wider networks at a time when it was previously thought to be isolated and undergoing a kind of ‘recession,'” Wilson said.

The researchers say this ensured households had enough resources to survive in the tough Orkney environment.

The different types of burials found in the cemetery also point to the creation of “new and more complex identities,” with shared rituals, activities, technologies and farming techniques resulting in a “peaceful and productive period,” the researchers say.

“Far from presenting an existential threat, as has sometimes been suggested, the influx of people appears here to have coincided with a period of social stability,” Wilson said.





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