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.