Research project

Counter Culture: Investigating Neolithic Social Diversity

Project overview

Led by Penny Bickle at York University, the aim of this project is to reveal the forms and extent of social diversity among the earliest farmers of central Europe, in order to provide new avenues to investigate the history of social inequality.

The project will characterise social diversity across nearly a millennia in the Neolithic of central Europe, analysing how diet, mobility and health, as proxies for lifeways, varied in time and between different individual, cemeteries, settlements and cultural groups. It will then build on these data to ask what are the principal characteristics of Neolithic social diversity (age, sex, social group, or culture), and what was the history of Neolithic social inequality, does it increase, decrease or persist through time?

Social inequality and diversity in the Neolithic
Previous descriptions of Neolithic societies have relied on evidence from rich burials and ritual sites to model the form of the elite within society (e.g. 'Big Man' models). By focusing only on the elite these models produce a narrow, biased and binary picture of social standing in the past. In contrast, this project will employ bioarchaeological methods to assess lifeway diversity across the full range of social groups, rather than just those of the elite. At stake is whether diversity increases, decreases or persists from the early Neolithic to the middle Neolithic.

Regional Focus
The project will take as its focus the Early and Middle Neolithic in Alsace (c.5300-4300 cal BC). The Alsace region now has a high resolution and precise chronology for the period under study (Denaire et al. 2017) and offers plenty of house plans.


Neolithic lifeways in Alsace will be captured through integrating the results from high resolution strontium isotope, stable isotope analysis and dental calculus analysis, with the existing osteological information and evidence from burial rites. Strontium isotope analysis will reveal human mobility patterns in adolescence and whether individuals moved between childhood and their place of burial. Stable isotope analysis will provide insights into diversity in diet between the ages and sexes. The investigation of dental calculus will permit the investigation of daily activities and reveal further details about diet, by analysing the mircofossils preserved in dental plaque. These new analyses will then be interpreted in context with information drawn from the human skeleton and burial practices, as well as the variety of grave goods.

Our results will be disseminated via open access journal articles, conference presentations, a website with blog, associated social media, and downloadable resources and events for the public and interest groups. The project will benefit the scholarly study of the Neolithic, and of the history of social inequality more broadly. Its application in events and resources for children and local communities will aid the effort to improve understanding of the complex experience of social diversity in today's world of growing social inequality, global mobility and culture contact.


Lead researcher

Professor Alistair Pike

Professor in Archaeological Science

Research interests

  • U-Th dating
  • Radiocarbon dating
  • Reconstruction of mobility using Sr and O isotopes, including time resolved measurements by laser ablation
Connect with Alistair

Research outputs