Mother and baby die during complicated birth in Neolithic China

A new study has found the first evidence in ancient China of a mother and newborn baby who died as the result of birth complications. Writing in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology Zhao and colleagues describe a young woman buried with a newborn baby placed between her lower legs from Huigou, a Yangshao 仰韶文化(Neolithic) site dated from around 3900-2900BC in Henan, China.

Examining the bones of the young woman the authors found that there is a bony lesion that they speculate may be related to a scar from a previous difficult childbirth. The dimensions of the woman’s pelvis were compared with data from modern Chinese women and it was suggested that the length of the front of her pelvis would have caused problems during birth.

Although when I first looked at this photo of the baby between the legs of this young woman I was reminded of coffin birth the authors point out that this baby is buried similarly as the other individuals in the cemetery placed supine with their head towards the north and with its arms extended at the side of their body. The authors state that there is no evidence for a coffin for this burial so there would have been no open space as it would have been infilled with dirt. However, I would argue that the constriction of the body as shown by the elevated clavicles (collar bones) and aligned arm bones show that the body was constricted somehow, indicating that there may have been some kind of burial container or wrapping and consequently some empty space.

Nevertheless, this case gives us the first real glimpse into the nature of childbirth and mortality in ancient China. Interestingly, infants were normally buried in urns in places set apart for this age group during this time period in this region. Although this double burial of the mother and baby may have simply been practical, the authors speculate that the baby may not have been deemed a separate person at this life stage.


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Babies found with human skull helmets in ancient Ecuador

See Kristina Killgrove’s Forbes story on this new paper.

Two infants have been interred with bone helmets (the skull cap) of other juveniles at the ritual complex of Salango in Ecuador dated to 100BC. This is the first evidence globally for the manipulation of infant and child skulls in this way. The bones used for the helmets have evidence for being cut and shaped around the time of death and the positioning in the grave suggests that they were buried at the same time as the infants.

This research highlights the importance of the study of burial treatment and manipulation of infant and child bodies in past societies. The authors state that the human head (and skull) is important socially and culturally. In some societies human skulls are manipulated and used as symbols of relationships, status, power, and control. In South America infants and children have been found to be given complex mortuary ritual, which the authors argue contributes to protecting their “presocial and wild souls”. Interestingly, the infant heads were surrounded with stone ancestor figurines that they speculate indicates a “concern with protecting and empowering the heads”.

There is evidence for pathology on the bones of the two infants indicating they suffered from nutritional and/or infectious disease. The authors state that this finding is unusual for the area and time period. However, I think this is likely due to the previous lack of interest in the study of pathology in infants in the region and development of new methods for identifying disease in this age group. A case in point is the reanalyses of the infants and children from the Arica region in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile (Snoddy et al. 2018), which has shown a very high prevalence of nutritional disease in infant and children overlooked by previous specialists.


Snoddy AME, Halcrow SE, Buckley HR, Standen VG and Arriaza BT (2017), “Scurvy at the agricultural transition in the Atacama Desert (ca 3600–3200 BP): Nutritional stress at the maternal-foetal interface?”, International Journal of Paleopathology. Vol. 18, pp. 108 – 120.