Spain’s Silver-Crowned Woman Gains a Face, and a Genetic Legacy – The New York Times

New research is solving mysteries linked to the La Almoloya burial site and revealing new information about ancient European people.

A facial reconstruction in progress of a person buried in Spain 3,700 years ago.
Credit…Joana Bruno/ASOME/Autonomous University of Barcelona

This year, archaeologists announced the discovery of a remarkable, 3,700-year-old double burial in Murcia, Spain. Skeletons of a man and a woman were draped in silver — earrings, bracelets, rings and, most notably, a silver diadem that had once gleamed on the woman’s head.

The burial site, and particularly the crown and other fineries interred with the woman, hinted at a premodern European culture in which women might have held considerable power. The skeletons were unearthed in a large ovoid jar in La Almoloya, a key settlement of the El Argar culture, which is one of the earliest examples of a society in Europe with a ruling bureaucracy, geopolitical boundaries and other hallmarks of an advanced state.

Although the gender politics of El Argar continue to be debated, a pair of complementary research projects are solving mysteries at this burial site. One has given faces to the woman, the man and others buried at La Almoloya, while the other is filling out an intriguing genetic history for the El Argar people.

Joana Bruno, a doctoral student at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, created digital facial representations of 36 people buried at La Almoloya. At the burial site, she said, “we not only have most of the facial portion of the skulls complete, but we also have the mandible, which is a very important portion of what constitutes the lower contour of the face.” The research is part of her dissertation, and the findings have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Using a combination of facial reconstruction methods, anatomical knowledge and computer software, Ms. Bruno created a series of faces that are gray-toned and rendered in profile, their distinctive noses and ears made more prominent by their lack of hair. The reconstructions have intentionally neutral facial expressions to enable comparisons.


Credit…Joana Bruno/ASOME/Autonomous University of Barcelona

“We are trying to use these faces to see if the resemblance between certain traits could point us towards a shared genetic relationship” among the bodies, Ms. Bruno said.

The silver-rich woman died around 1,700 B.C., during the last phase of the El Argar culture. The upper portion of her skull didn’t survive the millenniums, but a short video by Ms. Bruno depicts her with a long narrow nose and thick silver earlobe plugs. Digital facial reconstruction of the man buried beside her (known as AY38/2) shows he had a recessed jaw, or retrognathism. An infant girl buried nearby (AY30/2) had the same trait.

Ms. Bruno proposed that the two were related — and genomic analysis proved her right. The man was the girl’s father, and the girl’s mother was the woman with the silver crown.

“The fact that AY38/2 is the father of AY30/2 gives further support to retrognathism as a relevant marker of Argaric populations,” said Cristina Rihuete Herrada, a professor of prehistory at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and one of the discoverers of the burial site.

Ms. Bruno also modeled the face of a boy found at the burial site. As she digitally fleshed him out, his unusually wide-set eyes emerged. The condition, hypertelorism, can be caused by a number of genetic disorders.

Understanding the genetic relationships of the Almoloya bodies to others across the Iberian Peninsula was the goal of another study, published on Wednesday in Science Advances. Researchers analyzed the genomes of 67 people buried at La Almoloya, including the silver-crowned woman, and another 33 buried at the Argaric site of La Bastida. The researchers then compared them with the genomes of nearly 200 people found across what are now Spain and Portugal, spanning the years 3,300 B.C. to 1,000 B.C.

This period includes the transition from the Copper Age to the Bronze Age around 2,200 B.C. It was a time of social upheaval across China, the Near East, Egypt and Europe that may have been incited by a century of intense climate change, during which environments became much drier.

On the lower Iberian Peninsula, the delineation between the two ages is especially sharp. Copper Age sites contain monumental funerary structures, fortified mega-settlements and artifacts that originated in far-off places.


Credit…ASOME/Autonomous University of Barcelona

But this lifestyle was largely abandoned in the early Bronze Age. The El Argar favored large hilltop settlements like La Almoloya, and their burials were more intimate, with just a person or two interred. Their pottery, specialized weapons and bronze, silver and gold artifacts were distinctly different.

The researchers found that Argaric genetics reflected this turnover. Based on DNA extracted from teeth and cranial bones, they discovered that after the transition from the Copper Age to the Bronze Age, the El Argar had genetic links to a population in Central Europe known as the steppe people.

The researchers also found a surprising gender divide across the Argaric sites.

Based on their mitochondrial DNA, passed from mother to child, the women and girls were mostly descended from local people. Yet the men and boys were overwhelmingly related to the steppe people, and had virtually no genetic inheritance from the local people. The men and boys, tracked through their Y chromosomes, belonged to a genetic population now among the most common in Western Europe, but which was relatively new to the Iberian Peninsula 4,200 years ago. About a century after their arrival, these steppe-descended men replaced the local Iberian men entirely — and had many children with the local women.

As researchers studied these genomes, another gender difference emerged as well.

“Males have many relatives at the site, whereas the females have less,” said Vanessa Villalba-Mouco, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany and an author of the study.

Of the 30 adult female genomes that researchers sequenced at La Almoloya, not one woman was related to any other woman. They had children — such as the infant daughter of the silver-crowned woman — but they were seemingly otherwise on their own.

The site contains no evidence of colonization or violence, but it also contains no easy explanation for these genetic relationships.

“We don’t know if that is the result of men becoming widows and having sequential spouses or, much the contrary, polygamic practices,” Dr. Rihuete-Herrada, a co-author of the genetic study, said.

But the researchers don’t think the genetic discovery contradicts the idea that women held some power in El Argar. One possibility, Dr. Rihuete-Herrada said, is that women in different settlements sent “their daughters as an alliance with other groups that are run equally along female lines.”

The only other Argaric silver diadems were found with women.


Credit…ASOME/Autonomous University of Barcelona

David Reich, an expert in ancient DNA at Harvard Medical School, said that such a nearly complete Y chromosome turnover could have happened when powerful local women formed alliances with foreign men.

“Maybe they say, ‘Oh, there’s these elite foreign men who have culture or religion or some degree of military power or lands.’ And so there’s a complete or partial rejection of the local male population,” said Dr. Reich, whose data in a 2019 study on the genomic history of the Iberian Peninsula was used in the current research.

While the study focuses on population genetics at a regional scale, there are details about a few individuals in the data, too. Phenotype analysis suggests that most of them had brown eyes, brown or black hair and generally medium-toned skin. A few were redheads.

And researchers also found evidence of genetic disorders. One infant girl was found to have Trisomy X, or three X chromosomes, which is linked to a number of disorders. Their burials, however, were typical for La Almoloya. The woman with the silver crown, for instance, had the richest tomb as well as a shortened, fused spine and a stunted left thumb.

“What is important here is that people potentially impaired were not treated differently and certainly not excluded,” Dr. Rihuete-Herrada said.

The next step in their research is to try to establish family links between the people at La Almoloya based on their locations, housing environments and burials, which will inform their understanding of the Argaric social structure, including whether it was patrilineal or matrilineal, Dr. Rihuete Herrada said.

Volker Heyd, a professor of prehistoric archaeology at the University of Helsinki, said genetically based kinship studies like these signaled a “clear revolution” in our understanding of human connections.

“So far, kinship could only have been assessed with ethnographic research or a little bit of historical records,” said Dr. Heyd, who was not involved in the study. But now, he said, scientists can study “patterns sometimes going back over thousands of years that are still visible.”

Dr. Villalba-Mouco is also sending the phenotype data from her study to Ms. Bruno, so she can add eye, skin and hair color to her gray reconstructions.

Ms. Bruno said she felt “quite privileged to be the first person to see their faces emerging from the skulls after so many years.”