Peptide analysis reveals Copper Age 'Ivory Man' remains are actually those of the 'Ivory Lady'

Researchers determine the unexpected gender identity of 5000-year-old remains found in a lavish grave in southwestern Spain.
Shubhangi Dua
Artist recreates the illustration of the 'Iron Lady,' a high status woman from the Copper Age
Artist recreates the illustration of the 'Iron Lady,' a high status woman from the Copper Age

Miriam Luciañez Triviño / Scientific Reports 

Back in 2008, when archaeologists discovered a 3000-year-old grave containing a rare and valuable collection of ivory tusks, high-quality flint, ostrich eggshell, amber and a rock-crystal dagger near Seville in south-western Spain, they assumed that it belonged to an elite leader from the Copper Age.

The grave obviously belonged to someone of a very high social status, so they named 'him' , the Ivory Man.

However, a new study has turned the traditional notion that men held the highest status in this transitional period in ancient history on its head. 

Upon re-examination of the remains, scientists have determined that the body was in fact that of a woman, now re-named the ‘Ivory Lady’.

“These findings reveal the high-status women could hold in this ancient society”, said the archaeologists who undertook the study.

Previous studies have determined that women had specialized status in the Early Bronze Age in Hungary (2500-1900 BC) and in the Late Neolithic culture. The author of the study published in Research Gate, Tünde Horváth said that women’s knowledge, property and profession raised them above the average man and woman.

First discovery

The remains were first discovered in the town of Valencina in 2008.

It is thought to belong to the Copper Age, between 3,200 and 2,200 years ago. Also referred to as the Chalcolithic, it began around the mid-fifth millennium BCE was one of the earliest eras primarily understood for male dominance in society. 

Archaeological determinations originally deduced that the buried individual was a young male, aged between 17 and 25 years old.

The new study, which addresses gender inequality in past archaeological discoveries said, “the understanding of past sex-gender systems frequently rests on the identification of biological sex. Such identification, which is of crucial importance for anthropological, demographic, and sociological analysis, becomes challenging when the evidence at hand is thousands of years old.”

Definitively determining the sex of ancient remains using DNA can be particularly difficult. In this case, it was further complicated by the intense heat of thousands of southern Spanish summers, which had significantly degraded the remaining genetic material.

Peptide analysis

The scientists employed peptide analysis to genetically test the specimen for the presence of the sexually-dimorphic enamel-forming protein amelogenin in its teeth. 

Results indicated that the individual was female as the molar and an incisor tooth contained the AMELX gene that produces the protein amelogenin located in the X chromosome. 

The study found that the 'Ivory Lady' was the only burial in the grave, and was accompanied by a significant amount of valuables. 

The remains of 15 women were found in a grave next to the primary grave. Therefore, researchers presumed that the other women were descendants of the ‘Ivory Lady’ who may have built the tomb. 

The authors of the research noted that the period most likely didn’t determine one’s high status by birth rite due to the lack of grave goods in infant burials. 

“The Ivory Lady achieved her status through merit and achievements in life,” the archaeologists said. 

The site is thought to be the most lavish tomb in the region from the Copper Age. Scientists are yet to find any other male remains of a similar high status.

Therefore, the archaeological re-examination’s new developments suggest that women occupied positions of leadership in the Iberian Copper Age society.

The study was published earlier today by Scientific Reports.


Given the absence of written records, the main source of information available to analyze gender inequalities in early complex societies is the human body itself. And yet, for decades, archaeologists have struggled with the sex estimation of poorly preserved human remains. Here we present an exceptional case study that shows how ground-breaking new scientific methods may address this problem. Through the analysis of sexually dimorphic amelogenin peptides in tooth enamel, we establish that the most socially prominent person of the Iberian Copper Age (c. 3200–2200 BC) was not male, as previously thought, but female. The analysis of this woman, discovered in 2008 at Valencina, Spain, reveals that she was a leading social figure at a time where no male attained a remotely comparable social position. Only other women buried a short time after in the Montelirio tholos, part of the same burial area, appear to have enjoyed a similarly high social position. Our results invite to reconsider established interpretations about the political role of women at the onset of early social complexity, and question traditionally held views of the past. Furthermore, this study anticipates the changes that newly developed scientific methods may bring to prehistoric archaeology and the study of human social evolution.