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.

References

  1. Dunne, J. et al. Nature https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1572-x (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. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-019-00911-7 (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)

 

 

Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past conference programme out now — sscip

We are delighted to announce the SSCIP 2019 Conference Programme hosted by the University of Sheffield. Also, for those of you who are yet to register, please note that registration is still open and will remain open until the 30th of September 2019. Please find the link for registration below. https://onlineshop.shef.ac.uk/conferences-and-events/faculty-of-arts-and-humanities/archaeology/rebels-without-a-cause-accessing-and-exploring-adolescentsadolescence-in-the-past If anyone has any […]

via Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past conference programme out now — sscip

Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past sponsored session at the 84th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology

Post by Kirsty Squires and Esme Hookway Another year, another Society for American Archaeology (SAA) conference. This year the conference took place between 10th-14th April 2019 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past (SSCIP) sponsored the “Health and Welfare of Children in the Past” session, organised by Esme […]

via SSCIP sponsored session at the 84th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology — sscip

Childhood in the Past, volume 12 OUT NOW

sscip

Here is the editorial by Eileen Murphy for the most recent volume of CiP. Enjoy!

Welcome to the spring issue of Volume twelve of Childhood in the Past, the journal of the Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past (SSCIP). The issue starts with a welcome address by newly elected SSCIP President, Dr Katie Hemer. While it was sad to see our former president, Dr Sally Crawford, end her term of office she will still be very much involved in SSCIP in her new role as a vice-president. I have no doubt Katie will be an excellent president and you can read about some of her ideas in her address.

SSCIP was as busy as ever in 2018. SSCIP Committee Member, Esme Hookaway of Staffordshire University, and Marion Shiner of the University of Sheffield, ran a SSCIP stall for the second year running at the Big Biology…

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Registration NOW OPEN – Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past Conference

sscip

Rebels Without a Cause? Accessing and Exploring Adolescents/Adolescence in the Past

12th Annual Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past Conference

Location: University of Sheffield, Sheffield, England, U.K

Dates:  30th October – 1st November 2019
Organisers: Dr Katie Hemer, Dr Sophie Newman

Host Department: Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield

The 2019 SSCIP Conference seeks to explore the many facets of adolescence, and how scholars from diverse fields of research offer nuanced insight into the lives of those occupying this unique stage in the life course in the past. Papers are sought from researchers working on adolescence across the Humanities and Social Sciences (e.g. Archaeology, Art History, Anthropology, History, English literature etc.). This interdisciplinary conference is supported by the Sheffield Centre for the Archaeology of Childhood

(https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/archaeology/research/centres/childhood).

Confirmed keynote speakers: Prof. Jane Eva Baxter (DePaul University, USA) and Dr Mary Lewis (University…

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