In 2008, archaeologists in Valencina, Spain, discovered a stunningly ornate tomb. The single-occupancy grave, a rarity in itself for the time, contained a treasure trove of valuables: a rock crystal dagger, high-quality flint, ostrich eggshells and ivory, including the tusk of an African elephant.
Dating to the Iberian Copper Age—some 5,000 years ago—it held an individual who likely died between the ages of 17 and 25. Assuming the tomb belonged to a wealthy, powerful leader, scientists called this individual the “Ivory Man.” But now, 15 years later, researchers have determined that the Ivory Man was actually an “Ivory Lady,” according to a study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.
To reach this conclusion, researchers used a new technique that can identify an individual’s sex based on tooth enamel. This process can be more effective than DNA analysis when studying remains in especially poor condition.
This new research shows that women could hold high-status roles in Iberian society at the time—and that this particular woman may have even been the “highest-ranked person” during her lifetime, says study co-author Leonardo García Sanjuán, an archaeologist at the University of Seville in Spain, to Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki. He adds that the Ivory Lady’s wealth and social status were impressive even when compared against a database of approximately 2,000 Copper Age burials in the region.
“The Ivory Lady totally stands out, head and shoulders above the rest, either male or female,” he tells Science’s Celina Zhao.
Researchers think that the Ivory Lady may have been revered for several generations, reports CNN’s Katie Hunt. Other graves and artifacts around her tomb date to as late as 200 years after her death.
Additionally, one nearby tomb—the only “comparably lavish” grave in the area, according to a statement announcing the new study—contains the remains of at least 15 women, suggesting that other women held leadership positions and high status during this period.
Since this society’s infants weren’t buried with grave goods, the researchers hypothesize that wealth and status weren’t inherited. The Ivory Lady could have risen to her high rank through “her personal charisma and her achievements,” they write. She was not a stranger to hard work, as her bones indicate she took part in hard physical labor.
“This is a leader who leads through example,” García Sanjuán tells Science. “She did not have a life of comfort or luxury.”
The new study is part of a broader body of research examining the “interplay between early social complexity and gender inequalities,” says García Sanjuán to Popular Science’s Laura Baisas. He tells Live Science that researchers have made similar mistakes in other cases, and that such assumptions are “a poor scientific practice and a cautionary tale.”
As historians learn more about the complex roles women held in prehistoric societies, the case of the Ivory Lady “confirms what feminist-inclined bioarchaeologists have been saying for almost two decades now … that past socio-sexual lives were diverse and complex,” Pamela Geller, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Miami who was not part of the recent study, tells CNN.
Alison Beach, a historian at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who was not involved in the study, agrees. “This research provides one more piece of evidence questioning old historical narratives,” she tells Christina Larson of the Associated Press. “It’s not exclusively true that men have always been the most revered or held the most authority.”