Is this really a 5,000 year old mother and baby?

A recent story of a 4,800-year-old ‘mother’ cradling a baby has been pulling at the heart strings of people worldwide with sensationalist headlines such as “Mother’s enduring love for baby revealed as 5000-year-old fossil found” and “Fossil of 5000-year-old mother cradling baby found in Taiwan”. But is this story everything it’s really cracked up to be?

An archeological team working at a Neolithic site near the city of Taichung since 2014 has unearthed “48 sets of remains”, presumably the number of individual graves, representing the earliest burial site in Taiwan. One of these burials has been described as a mother and baby. However, the news accounts provide little information as to why the researchers believe this to be the case, apart from the placement of the baby with the adult female and the turning of her head to be “looking at her baby” (Figure 1).

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 4.44.59 pmFigure 1: The 4800-year-old “mother and baby” found in Taiwan (source: Reuters)

It is likely that if a female and newborn baby is found in a burial context that they died during childbirth (see my earlier post on fetuses in archaeology). Childbirth is the most critical time for both a mother and baby. This has even led some archaeologists to argue that higher mortality rates of young adult females compared with males represent the hazards of childbirth in the past.

The baby has been described as a foot and a half (about 46 cms), which is about the size of a newborn baby. However, looking at the photos and the videos from the news stories the baby looks too big to be a newborn. The only bones present seem to be from the waist-up. Looking at the relative size of the hands of the archaeologist cleaning the bones and the upper body of the baby (Figure 2), it may be that the size cited is for the upper body, supporting that the infant is older than a newborn. It is difficult to see the cranial bones to assess their development to infer an age-at-death. The cranial bones look thicker than a newborn, but it is unclear as it appears there is some concreted soil adhering to the surface of the bones. Given that this infant seems older than a newborn it is unlikely that they were mother and child.

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 2.47.40 pmFigure 2: Archaeologist cleaning the ‘mother-baby’ burial (photo: Reuters video).

In a small Neolithic community there may have been some kind of relationship between the adult female and the infant, or they may have only been buried together because their deaths coincided. Using a cross cultural example, in the Anglican burial tradition babies were interred with non-maternal women in instances of coinciding death (Roberts and Cox 2003: 253).

To assess if there is a biological relationship between this purported mother-baby pair, ancient DNA analyses could be undertaken, but this is difficult with preservation issues in tropical contexts. We should also keep in mind that a mother-child relationship is not always biological.

The fact that the adult female had her head turned to her left may be the result of the burial environment, as some bones can shift in open spaces such as coffins, or from the weight of soil on the bones. Further research looking at the positions of the bone could give more insight on the mode of burial.

We will have to await the scientific presentation of the findings from this site to evaluate the likelihood for this purported mother and baby.

3 comments

  1. Pingback: Is this really a case of a 5,000 year old mother and baby? — The Bioarchaeology of Childhood | Sian Halcrow | sscip
  2. Kase Jackson · February 26

    What are:

    Drowning
    Suicide
    Disease

    Like

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