The historical experiences of infant death in New Zealand


Megan is a PhD student in the Department of Anatomy, University of Otago researching the historical experiences of infant death.

Tell us about your research
 My PhD is focused on infant death in Dunedin, New Zealand between 1850 and 1940. I’m using historical resources as well as the physical memorialisation of these babies (gravestones, markers etc) to identify how parents chose to remember their lost child. There were massive changes in infant mortality rates, medical care and fertility during this time and I’m trying to discern if this had any effect on how infants were grieved for if they died. 

What is it that drew you to this research?
I have always been interested in history and biology, and somehow I managed to find a field that lets me research both! When I completed my Honours project, which was research into the provenance of a set of infant remains, I really felt like I had more work to do so I applied for a PhD. 

What are your career goals and aspirations?
Ultimately I want a career that lets me continue to learn, but what that career might be I’m not sure yet. 

What are you most proud about so far in terms of your achievements?
Shining a light on some untold local stories. Women and children have typically been neglected in historical accounts, and my research is doing something to rectify this. While my focus is specifically on the infants, it really is a story of ordinary families going through something rather extraordinary (by modern standards). Some of the fathers that lost infants were prominent Otago men and while their life stories are well known, this is one aspect that is rarely talked about. 

What is one thing that you have found surprising while researching your focus?
The idea that infants of the past were objects with no ability to affect the world around them! When reading literature on this subject, there seems to be an idea that in times of high fertility and high infant mortality, infants were somewhat replaceable and parents would not openly grieve for their lost child. In historic Dunedin, this is absolutely not the case! It’s clear that women and their families felt a wide range of emotions after the loss of a child, and the internment of these children reflects that.  

What is one thing about your research you want people to take away with them?
Not to take for granted the advances we’ve made in hygiene and medicine! We enjoy the low maternal and infant mortality rate today because of advances in obstetric and paediatric medicine, antisepsis, vaccinations, and infant nutrition. 

Online resources on infant and child bioarchaeology for teachers and students

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There is an increasing number of online imaging resources and software useful for the bioarchaeology of infant and children. These resources are of particular use for teaching.

Online Imaging Resources and Software

Gwen Robbins Schug from Appalachian State University (US) has developed Osteological Teaching Resources, which features a growing collection of 3D scans of human fetal and perinatal remains. Digitised Diseases, developed by the University of Bradford (UK), is a significant paleopathological resource with an impressive array of 3D models of bone pathology useful for comparative purposes. Infants and children are featured in many of their disease category types, particularly in the metabolic disease section. eSkeletons, an interactive resource for students in biological anthropology, contains limited child osteology resources. The AAOF Craniofacial Growth Legacy Collection, a database on
craniofacial development in modern children developed by the American Association of Orthodontists for clinical use, may be of use in teaching and research by bioarchaeologists. El Atlas de Osteología Infantil FACSO is being developed for teaching and learning purposes and includes infant reference material. Three-dimensional data sharing is starting to be used among paleoanthropologists for recording and sharing new fossil hominin finds, particularly because of their rare and unique nature.
However, it is our understanding that there are no open access 3D scan data of infant and child remains. There is also little software available featuring infant and child osteology. The interactive 3D skeleton viewer Dactyl (by Anthronomics), designed by Tim Thompson from the University of Teesside (UK), has some examples of child bones. Most bioarchaeologists construct their own databases for data collection in both lab and fieldwork situations. There is an increasing number of human fetal, infant, and child casts available for purchase from Bone Clones, Inc. and France Castings for teaching and research purposes.

AAOF Craniofacial Growth Legacy Collection.

Extensive open-access database produced by the American Association of Orthodontists
Foundation (AAOF), which includes nine collections of longitudinal craniofacial growth and development records in the United States and Canada. Developed for clinicians, but also represents a useful resource for craniofacial development for teachers and researchers in the field of childhood bioarchaeology. Material includes skull, dental, and hand-wrist radiographs.

Dactyl (by Anthronomics). Tim Thompson, University of Teesside, UK.

An interactive 3D viewer loaded with photo-realistic models of bones, allowing you to rotate and zoom in on each model. The viewer comes with three preloaded adult bone elements, and there are additional packs that you can purchase, which include a “non-adult pack” with 2 bones (femur and ilium). This app is available for purchase on iTunes and can be downloaded onto an iPad.

Digitised Diseases. University of Bradford, UK.

An open-access resource featuring human bones that have been digitized, with a wide range of pathological-type specimens from archaeological and historical medical collections. Infant and child pathology cases including trauma, metabolic, and infectious disease. Includes photorealistic digital representations of 3D bones that can be viewed, downloaded, and manipulated on a computer, tablet, or smartphone.

El Atlas de Osteología Infantil FACSO.

An open-access atlas project developed by students of physical anthropology at the University of Chile. This atlas is part of a larger project of developing human osteology resources for teaching and learning. The infant material is from the site of Pica 8, northern Chile, from the Late Intermediate Period.

eSkeletons. University of Texas at Austin.

Useful interactive resource to learn about human skeletal anatomy and comparative primate skeletal anatomy. Limited child osteology, including a life-size print of juvenile human bones in their teaching resources. Useful for students of all stages.
eSkeletons. University of Texas at Austin.

• Robbins Schug, Gwen. Osteological Teaching Resources. Appalachian State University.

Provides 3D scans of human fetal bones to be used for teaching purposes. The database is added to over time, with the ultimate goal to provide scans of all the skeletal elements from fetuses of different ages and perinates, cases of pathology, and traumatic injury. For access email:

A comprehensive online resource on childhood bioarchaeology published with Oxford Bibliographies is available here free to download.

This will be useful to all bioarchaeology and human osteoarchaeology students, and academics for research and teaching.

Halcrow, Siân E.; Ward, Stacey M. “Bioarchaeology of Childhood.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Childhood Studies. Ed. Heather Montgomery. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.


There are a very limited number of blogs on childhood from a bioarchaeological perspective, with this blog, obviously, dedicated to the topic. The Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past has a news blog as part of their WordPress website featuring member profiles, research and conference information, and other society-related news. Other popular bioarchaeological blogs, including Powered By Osteons and, regularly include material on childhood bioarchaeology. Katharina Rebay-Salisbury has also recently started a blog called Motherhood in Prehistory, focusing on her bioarchaeological work in western Europe, which includes information on fetuses and infants in the past.

• Halcrow, Siân, and Sally Crawford. Childhood in the Past News and Blog.

This blog, established in 2015, functions to keep the members of the Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past (cited under Associations) up-to-date with news on conferences,
meetings, new research, and other opportunities in the multidisciplinary field of childhood in the past.

• Killgrove, Kristina. Powered by Osteons.

Established in 2007, this popular blog showcases Kristina Killgrove’s own research and
teaching as well as stories on recent bioarchaeological research. These blog stories often
involve child bioarchaeology. Killgrove is also a contributor for Forbes and mental_floss.

• Rebay-Salisbury, Katharina. Motherhood in Prehistory.

Established in 2015, this blog shares stories related to the author’s work investigating
motherhood in prehistoric western Europe. Often her posts include information about infants and fetuses.

Video resource on age estimation of infants and children Shot 2019-10-16 at 8.40.47 PM

There are numerous other educational stories on childhood bioarchaeology that will be useful for students, e.g.

Why do we have baby teeth




Raising girls and boys in early China

Analysing 2500-year-old teeth has thrown open a window onto life and gender inequality during Bronze Age China.

The University of Otago-led research has cast light on breastfeeding, weaning, evolving diets and the difference between what girls and boys were eating, lead researcher Dr. Melanie Miller, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Otago’s Department of Anatomy, says.

The teeth come from the Central Plains of China and date from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, between 771 and 221 BC. Despite their extreme antiquity (they are as old as Athens’ Parthenon and the Old Testament sacking of Jerusalem’s First Temple) the teeth’s dentin—the bony tissue forming the bulk of our teeth’s structure—was full of information.

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Using , researchers were able to show the types and amounts of various elements in the dentin, including carbon and nitrogen, unlocking information about the individuals’ life and diet. That enabled a picture to be drawn of a changing society, Dr. Miller says.

“We already knew this [Eastern Zhou Dynasty] showed increasing inequality between men and women. What we were able to find is that these differences were even evident in what people ate and how they cared for their children, such as gender differences in how long babies were weaned and then the foods they were fed as children.”

The analysis of 23 individuals from two different archaeological sites shows children were breastfed until they were between 2.5 and four years old, with weaning onto solids—consisting mostly of wheat and soybean—occurring slightly earlier in females than in males.

“For the two communities we studied, was an integral aspect of identity, and it was a medium of differentiation between females and males. We found dietary differences between the sexes began in and continued over the lifetime.

“That means the foods people ate on a regular basis were slightly different if they were a boy or girl, and then a man or a woman.”

Males continued to eat more of the traditional crop, millet, while females consumed more of the “new” foods such as wheat and soy, Dr. Miller says. That wheat and soy foods were important components of childhood diets suggests they were incorporated into local culinary practices as weaning foods.

The Eastern Zhou Dynasty is a very important period of Chinese history and Chinese cultural change; it is the time of Confucius and other notable intellectuals, Dr. Miller says.

“And we are seeing some of the earliest forms of social inequality between men and women emerge during this time, and these dietary results underscore how the daily lives of women and men were increasingly differentiated, even in daily practices such as what foods a person ate.”

Dr. Miller says the chemical techniques used in this type of bioarchaeology are making it possible to study ancient human dietary practices over those peoples’ lifetimes.

“With this approach we’re getting personalised glimpses into the lives of ancient people. That can reveal significant aspects of their life experiences, including things like gender divisions and social inequality.”

More information: Melanie J. Miller et al. Raising girls and boys in early China: Stable isotope data reveal sex differences in weaning and childhood diets during the eastern Zhou era, American Journal of Physical Anthropology (2020). DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.24033


Growing up different in Neolithic China – a case of dwarfism – Forbes article by Kristina Killgrove

“What we can say is that this individual would have likely had extra care needs where support from other community members was needed,” they write, “possibly both as the result of physical and/or mental disability, and that these would have presented early in life or were apparent at birth.”

Forbes piece by Kristina Killgrove

Guangia Figure 4 updated


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.

Early Europeans bottle-fed babies with animal milk

Published in Nature News and Views

The foods used to supplement or replace breast milk in infants’ diets in prehistoric times aren’t fully understood. The finding that ancient feeding vessels from Europe had residues of animal milk offers a clue.

Small pottery vessels, sometimes with animal-like forms (Fig. 1), containing a spout through which liquid could be poured, have been found at prehistoric archaeological sites in Europe. One idea put forward is that they were used as feeding vessels for sick adults and the elderly. However, writing in Nature, Dunne et al.1 describe an analysis of spouted vessels found in ancient graves of infants in Germany that indicates that these artefacts contained animal milk. This evidence suggests that such vessels were used to feed animal milk to children, providing crucial insight into the diet of developing infants in prehistoric human populations.

Selection of Late Bronze/Early Iron Age feeding vessels.

Figure 1 | Ancient pottery vessels. Vessels with a spout for pouring liquid and of a size suitable for feeding babies have been found at archaeological sites. The earliest examples of such vessels5 have been dated to around 5500–4800 bc, but whether these were used to feed infants is unknown. Two vessels are shown of this size and shape from the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age (vessels dated between 1200 and 800 bc). The vessel on the left, from Vösendorf, Austria, is approximately 90 millimetres high. The vessel on the right, from Statzendorf, Austria, is about 85 mm high. Dunne and colleagues’ analysis1 of organic residues found in ancient spouted vessels (not those pictured) sheds light on how early populations might have fed young infants. Credit: Katharina Rebay-Salisbury

For years, many archaeologists ignored children when studying ancient populations, but researchers now increasingly recognize the importance of children when trying to understand the factors affecting earlier societies2,3. One such example concerns a major societal turning point in human prehistory, known as the Neolithic demographic transition, when there is evidence of a substantial increase in fertility and a growth in the number of individuals in human populations compared with that of earlier societies4.

The Neolithic period in Europe began roughly around 7000 bc. During the Neolithic, some humans began to move away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle towards one that depended on crops and domesticated animals. How did this transition to agriculture lead to a baby boom? An exploration of the approaches used to feed infants might provide some of the evidence needed to answer this question.

Some of the earliest known pottery vessels of a suitable size and shape for use in feeding infants are from the Neolithic period. These artefacts, discovered in Germany, have been dated5 to between 5500 and 4800 bc. It has been suggested6 that during the Neolithic, weaning — when an infant’s diet changes from breast milk to other foods — occurred earlier in an infant’s life than was previously the case. This earlier weaning might have been accomplished by using animal milk and plant sources of carbohydrates. It has been argued that such early weaning could have helped to counteract the period of infertility that can occur while a mother is breastfeeding7, and thus might have led to the increase in fertility and population size during the Neolithic demographic transition. In the archaeological record, this fertility increase is evidenced, somewhat counter-intuitively, by an increase in the number of infants found at burial sites — if more babies are born in a population, then more babies will also die, and be buried8.

Dunne and colleagues examined ceramic vessels with spouts found in children’s graves from burial sites in Bavaria, Germany. One vessel came from a burial site dated to around 1200–800 bc (during the late Bronze Age), and two vessels came from a burial site from around 800–450 bc (during the early Iron Age).

The authors analysed traces of ancient food in these vessels to determine the origin of these residues, by assessing specific characteristics of fatty-acid molecules. Dunne et al. used isotope analysis to study the chemistry of specific compounds in the vessels, and also obtained molecular ‘fingerprints’ of the ancient lipids. They then compared this information with the fingerprints of known reference compounds. This evidence indicates that the vessels contained fatty acids from dairy products, probably milk, that came from domestic ruminant animals. The specific type of animal that provided this milk was not identified.

It is thought that humans first started drinking animal milk in Europe. A study9 published this year of proteins captured in dental plaque provides direct evidence that adults drank animal milk during the Neolithic period in Europe, with the earliest dates for this occurring around 6,000 years ago. Now Dunne et al. present the earliest known evidence of animal milk in small bottles for infants.

The exploration of infant feeding provides information about how babies have been cared for and how social attitudes towards infant feeding have changed over time10. Dunne and colleagues’ investigation of infant feeding during the Neolithic provides insight into cultural beliefs related to the body, infancy and motherhood. Furthermore, the type of food infants are fed, and when during their development they are given food in addition to breast milk, has a strong relationship to infant health and survival11.

Human breast milk is a perfect baby food, containing carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, digestive enzymes and hormones12. It provides protection from infection because it contains numerous types of immune cell13,14. Some of the sugars it contains, although not digested by babies, support certain communities of gut microorganisms , which prevent disease-causing microbes from establishing a presence in the body14. By contrast, animal-milk products do not provide a complete nutritional source for infants. And the use of hard-to-clean bottles for animal milk poses a risk of exposure to life-threatening infections such as gastroenteritis. The introduction of milk in bottles during the Neolithic, therefore, might have led to a deterioration in the health of some infants.

Further research on the remains of people in European prehistoric cemetery sites should be undertaken to explore the effects of the introduction of animal milk as an infant food. This could be assessed by analysing the rate of infant and child mortality, and determining whether any signs of nutritional or infectious disease are present when studying the bones and teeth in infant remains. Furthermore, the age at which a child was weaned can be investigated using techniques that analyse teeth15, and gathering such data can uncover the variation in weaning approaches that existed in a population16. Such knowledge, together with evidence of disease for the individual being studied, might help to provide a greater understanding of the significance of the introduction of animal milk for the lives of ancient children.


  1. Dunne, J. et al. Nature (2019).
  2. Lillehammer, G. in The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Childhood (eds Crawford, S., Hadley, D. & Shepherd, G.) 38–51 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2018).
  3. Halcrow, S. & Tayles, N. in Social Bioarchaeology (eds Agarwal, S. & Glencross, B.) 333–360 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).
  4. Bocquet-Appel, J. P. Science 333, 560–561 (2011).
  5. Meller, H. E. Bronzerausch: Spätneolithikum und Frühbronzezeit. Begleithefte zur Dauerausstellung 4 (State Museum of Prehistory Halle, 2011).
  6. Bocquet-Appel, J.-P. Curr. Anthropol. 43, 637–650 (2002).
  7. Chao, S. Clin. Perinatol. 14, 39–50 (1987).
  8. Jackes, M. in Strength in Diversity: A Reader in Physical Anthropology (eds Herring, A. & Chan, L.) 155–185 (Canadian Scholars, 1994).
  9. Charlton, S. et al. Archaeol. Anthropol. Sci. (2019).
  10. Tomori, C., Palmquist, A. E. L. & Quinn, E. A. in Breastfeeding: New Anthropological Approaches (eds Tomori, C., Palmquist, A. E. L. & Quinn, E. A.) Ch. 1, 1–25 (Routledge, 2017).
  11. Halcrow, S. E. et al. in Breastfeeding: New Anthropological Approaches (eds Tomori, C., Palmquist, A. E. L. & Quinn, E. A.) Ch. 11, 155–169 (Routledge, 2017).
  12. Lessen, R. & Kavanagh, K. J. Acad. Nutr. Diet. 115, 444–449 (2015).
  13. Martin, C. R., Ling, P.-R. & Blackburn, G. L. Nutrients 8, 279 (2016).
  14. Allens-Blevins, C. R., Sela, D. A. & Hinde, K. Evol. Med. Public Health 2015, 106–121 (2015).
  15. Beaumont, J., Gledhill, A., Lee-Thorp, J. & Montgomery, J. Archaeometry 55, 277–295 (2013).
  16. King, C. L. et al. Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. 28, 599–612 (2018)