Ancient Family: Bioarchaeology, Infant Health, and Disease

This week I’m tweeting for @RealScientists. Please come by and say hello. Here is my intro:

Real Scientists is in Aotearoa/New Zealand this week with Dr Siân Halcrow (@ancientchildren), a bioarchaeologist and associate professor at the University of Otago. Her research focuses on historical infant and child health and disease, and she spoke with Real Scientists about her work so far:

How did you get into bioarchaeology?
I always had an interest in biological science, but also anthropology and the humanities, and didn’t quite know how they might go together. I took a bioarchaeology paper (the study of human remains from archaeological sites) in the second year of my university degree and really became hooked into the analyses of human remains.

I just really fell into it in a way, albeit with a lot of hard work to get a job in academia. I had a fantastic mentor who really helped me. I was lucky that she suggested that I should do a postgraduate thesis on the topic of infant and childhood health in the past at a time when very little research investigated past human life ways using this approach. Infant and childhood bioarchaeology is now deemed a very important endeavour in studying the past, and I have carved out an exciting and popular research niche. I manage the skeletal analyses on several international archaeological projects in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Chile, and have collaborations in the UK, Australia, Chile, Thailand, Laos, and New Zealand.

What are some of the central themes of your research?
As noted, I am a bioarchaeologist with a research interest in all things to do with infants and children. My research addresses central archaeological questions on the intensification of agriculture and human responses during this seminal time in prehistory, with a regional interests in prehistoric Southeast Asia, China, and South America. I also have a research interest in the ethics of bioarchaeological practice.

What do you want the public to know about your work?
To understand the present it is very important to understand past events. For nearly 2.5 million years of the history of the genus Homo, there was little change in social organisation, subsistence and general way of life. The innovation and intensification of agriculture was a revolutionary turning point for human society. The change to agricultural subsistence allowed greater security of food supply, leading to population growth, increasing social complexity, the development of new technologies, and changes in settlement patterns. Despite the obvious advantages of food security, this development coincides with major negative consequences for human health in some parts of the world.

Ultimately, these changes in human society were the initial stimuli for the development of overcrowding, malnutrition, sickness and poor living conditions, which affect more than half of the world’s population today. Women and children experience the main burden of these changes, which affects population survival. The only direct way to advance our understanding of this fundamental transition in human history is to probe into the lives of past peoples through bioarchaeology, the study of people from archaeological skeletal remains.

Can you tell us a bit more about how the rise of agriculture affected health and development?
This universally applied model of prehistoric health change with agricultural development posits that the transition from hunting and foraging to agropastoral dependence had major implications for diet, weaning, and therefore fertility, with a related increase in infectious disease and decrease in general quality of life. The rise in fertility is related to the increased availability of carbohydrate staples suitable for weaning foods, resulting in a shorter breastfeeding period and earlier return of regular ovulation after birth. A deterioration in general health is related to increased population density and unsanitary living conditions consequent to people living a more sedentary lifestyle. Deterioration in health has also been associated with changes in the natural and social environment, including the introduction of novel diseases from increased contact with domestic animals and the migration of people.

What does a great day off look like for you?
Hanging with my children (I am a mother to a 13 and 4 year old, which takes up most of my time outside of paid work), drinking a lot of coffee, and writing stories on my blog.




Child Born 90,000 Years ago had Neanderthal Mother and Denisovan Father

Breaking news about an astonishing find of a child is hitting international news. The paper presents the genome of ‘Denisova 11’, who is represented by a small bone fragment from Denisova Cave in Russia. The authors found that the individual was a girl of at least 13 years of age and has a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father.

Interestingly, the authors argue that this type of mixed-breeding between Late Pleistocene hominin groups must have been common, given this finding of a Neanderthal–Denisovan offspring among a very small number of archaic specimens genetically analysed to date.

Screen Shot 2018-08-23 at 7.03.33 PM.pngDrawing of a Neandertal mother and a Denisovan father with their child, a girl, at Denisova Cave in Russia (Credit: Petra Korlević)

Screen Shot 2018-08-23 at 6.41.26 PM.pngThe bone fragment ‘Denisova 11′ from several angles  (photo taken by Tom Higham)

I was interested in the age-at-death estimation carried out from the analyses of cortical bone thickness. Although presented as fact that this individual was a “child” in the news with quotes from the main authors, it rightly states in the paper’s supplementary data that there are various problems with estimating the age-at-death of this specimen. They argue that the bone fragment may be from a femur, tibia or humerus because of its thickness of 8.4mms. However, archaic hominins were likely more robust, so it could be that this may have been from a smaller bone from a robust adult. So really they can’t actually say that it is a child, but that she was at least 13 years old. However, it goes without saying that regardless of this ‘child’s’ age, this is a very important finding.


Skull trauma in children indicates violent pre-Hispanic Canary Island societies

There is a romanticised view that pre-Hispanic societies from the Canary Islands lived in a ‘paradise on earth’ without violence and conflict. However, recent work by anthropologists has shown that there is evidence for intentional trauma in adults from pre-Hispanic sites suggesting inter-personal violence. A recently published paper has found that the young were not spared this violence, with a high number of children from the island of Gran Canaria with skull trauma. This is significant as there is generally less evidence for violence in children compared with adults from archaeological contexts.

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Figure 1: A seven year old child from Guayadeque, Gran Canaria, with blunt force trauma occurring around the time of death (from Velasco-Vázquez et al. 2018).


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Figure 2. Areas of the skull that showed traumatic injury (from Velasco-Vázquez et al 2018).

The infants and children analysed in this research are from sites that cover an expansive part of the pre-Hispanic occupation of Gran Canaria from the 6th to 15th century CE. The authors studied a total of 65 infants and children looking to identify any sharp force trauma, puncture injuries, and blunt force trauma on the skull. Fourteen children suffered from craniofacial injuries, all of which were blunt force trauma, and two of these children have evidence that this trauma resulted in their death (e.g. Figure 1). Most of the skeletal trauma occurred on the face or forehead, a similar pattern observed in adult studies of trauma in these populations (Figure 2).

Children could have been engaged as actors in this violence as well as the victims. Although early scholars painted the Canary Islands as a peaceful and bountiful paradise, ignoring  evidence for social inequality and conflict, there is archaeological evidence for marked social hierarchy and resource depletion in this insular community, which likely led to significant social unrest.

The late mediaeval agrarian crisis and the Black Death revealed through stressed childhoods

Looking at the teeth of adults can tell us a lot about early life-histories and unlock the secrets of the living conditions of past communities. An open access study published in the International Journal of Paleopathology aimed to give insight into the environmental and social changes seen in medieval Denmark, a time associated with the late medieval agrarian crisis and the mid-14th century Black Death epidemic.

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 6.35.23 pmThe Dance of Death or Danse Macabre, a common painting motif in the late medieval period inspired by the Black Death.

The authors used microscopic techniques to measure instances of stress in the teeth which form as the result of infection and/or poor nutrition. Teeth are especially useful for this analysis of stress as enamel forms at regular periodicity and permanent irregularities are formed when there is growth disruption from a stressful episode. Enamel growth lines visible on the tooth surface (known as perikymata) can be seen internally, and when these lines are pronounced (accentuated striae of Retzius or AS), these are associated with growth disruption. This type of analysis is especially useful as it is becoming recognised that assessing enamel defects with the naked eye is subjective, resulting in inter-observer error in quantifying these defects.

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 7.07.23 pm.pngMandibular canine with an example of an accentuated striae of Retzius (AS) highlighted by A (red arrows). Figure from Gamble et al. 2017.

The sample (n=70) used in this research was from the rural cemetery of Sejet and the urban cemetery of Ole Wormsgade, near the mediaeval market town of Horsens, dating from between mid-12th and mid-16th centuries.

Results showed sex differences in survivorship and stress experience. In males more stress is associated with reduced survivorship and in females more stress is associated with increased survivorship. These results are supported by previous studies investigating enamel defects and mortality in mediaeval England (e.g. De Witte 2010), which have been interpreted in the context that stress will have an adverse impact on later life health and in particular on males. Or, the authors argue, cultural factors resulting in different treatment of males and females may be a factor to explain these results.

It should be noted that the individuals used in this study survived past childhood so are not necessarily representative of the frailer individuals who died prematurely. The authors argue that “the late medieval agrarian crisis in association with episodes such as the Great Bovine Pestilence and consequent periods of famine may have interacted in a complex fashion with individual frailty for the populations in this study. Evidence points to increased morbidity and mortality prior to Black Death in England, along with selectivity in response to pre-existing health conditions as part of the Black Death epidemic. It is possible that less frail individuals who survived more stress events were able to mount a stronger immune response to pathogens later in life, thus conferring an advantage that would contribute to greater longevity.”

I wonder if further work done on AS in deciduous teeth (from the non-survivors) that form in-utero and during infancy could tease apart some of these interpretations of frailty and sex of the survivors in this study.

DeWitte, S. N. (2010). Sex Differentials in Frailty in Medieval England. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 143 (2): 285–297.

Uncovering childhood in museums

Personal Reflections By Amanda Hoogestraat, Twitter @AmehAnthro

On my recent tour of museums in the UK, I saw small reminders of children in the exhibits featuring past societies. Children were obviously a part of every community, but are underrepresented in museum collections. There is a museum devoted to childhood in both London and Edinburgh, but perhaps other museums should consider adding more children’s items to their collections for a more balanced representation of life in the communities it displays.

For many of the museums that had childhood material culture, shoes or cradles were the only items on view.

Four out of the 55 museums that I visited had children’s skeletal remains on display; usually infants and mostly with an adult skeletons nearby. Rarely did I see older children.

However, it was the toys that interested me the most; to see how the cherished play items were very similar to those of today.

I also observed how visiting children interacted with the exhibits, especially at museums not designed specifically for them. Some of these museums had created play areas pertaining to a display nearby.

Surprisingly, the British Motor Museum was a place that had children’s programs and school tours.

I think everyone enjoys seeing items from a childhood different from our own lives or from our own childhoods. It reminds us that across time and location, children were an integral part of the society.

Faulty science in DNA analysis of the Atacama ‘alien’ mummy

Our recently published international collaborative research calls into question the skeletal and genomic analysis, and ethics surrounding research into the much publicised alien-like “Atacama mummy”.

Here is Forbes coverage written by co-author Kristina Killgrove.

Our team published our findings yesterday in an open-access paper in the International Journal of Paleopathology. Here we evaluated work carried out on the mummy by Stanford University researchers, which was published in Genome Research earlier this year.

The mummy in question was discovered more than a decade ago in an abandoned town in the Atacama Desert of Chile and nicknamed “Ata”. In analysing this tiny mummified body, the Stanford researchers concluded genetic abnormalities could explain perceived abnormal characteristics of the skeleton, which was only 15cm long.

10833_800xLa Noria Cemetery in the Atacama Desert (via

As experts in human anatomy and skeletal development, we found no evidence for any of the skeletal anomalies reported by the Stanford researchers. All the abnormal characteristics cited by the Stanford researchers are part of normal skeletal development of a foetus.

Unfortunately, there was no scientific rationale to undertake genomic analyses of Ata because the skeleton is normal, the identified genetic mutations are possibly coincidental, and none of the genetic mutations are known to be strongly associated with skeletal pathology that would affect the skeleton at this young age.

The situation highlights the need for an interdisciplinary research approach for a case study such as “Ata”. This case study allows us to showcase how drawing together multiple experts in osteology, medicine, archaeology, history and genetics is essential for accurate scientific interpretations and for considering the ethical implications of genomic analysis.

A nuanced understanding of skeletal biological processes and cultural context is essential for accurate scientific interpretation and for acting as a check on the ethics and legality of such research.

Co-author Bernardo Arriaza, a bioarchaeologist from the University of Tarapacá in Chile says it is crucial to consider the archaeological content in addition to an interdisciplinary approach. It is important to remember the situation is a pregnancy loss possibly from the very recent past.

“This mummy reflects a sad loss for a mother in the Atacama Desert,” Dr Arriaza says.

We also highlighted concerns around archaeological legislation and the ethics of carrying out research with no ethical consents, nor archaeological permits cited by the Stanford researchers.

We caution DNA researchers about getting involved in cases that lack clear context and legality, or where the remains have resided in private collections. In the case of Ata, costly and time-consuming scientific testing using whole genome techniques was unnecessary

We are also disappointed that co-authors Halcrow and Killgrove were unable to submit a response to the article and research in question to Genome Research. We were both told that Genome Research does not publish letters to the editor, only original research papers, despite senior authors Nola and Butte’s (the Stanford University researchers’) later response statement in which they seek to justify the ethics of their analyses.

For the scientific process to advance it is essential to have open debate through peer-reviewed journals





Egyptian ‘hawk’ mummy is a human foetus with a fatal birth defect

Recently researchers have made an unexpected discovery of a mummified foetus while CT scanning a 2300-year-old mummy known as Ta-Kush currently held at the Maidstone Museum in Kent. This coffin was labelled, “A mummified hawk with linen and cartonnage, Ptolemaic period (323 BC – 30 BC).”

Micro-CT scan shows the mummified stillborn human baby. Image: Maidstone Museum UK/Nikon Metrology UK

The high resolution CT scan results have recently been presented at the Extraordinary World Congress on Mummy Studies in the Canary Islands last month. The authors argue that the foetus was about 23-28 weeks gestation and had anencephaly as shown by underdeveloped skull bones.

To me, this begs the question as to whether the several other Egyptian ‘hawk’ mummies curated around the world are actually tiny babies. Further investigation of this baby and others will shed light on the social responses of grief and loss of those born too young to survive.

Watch here on YouTube Mummy ‘bird’ mystery

The coffin. Image: Western University






The Dark Story of the 19th Century Orphans of Amsterdam

Contribution by Krista Amira Calvo @trowel_and_bone

At the beginning of the 20th century, the remains of 1500 girls and young women were recovered from the DeLiefde cemetery in Amsterdam. After preliminary literary research into the collection, I became intrigued. I felt their remains would tell a story that paralleled historical documentations of illness, social status, and the fate of orphans in the past. What I did not anticipate was the startling percentage of the individuals uncovered did not survive beyond the age of four.




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From Amsterdam Het R.C. Maagdenhuis en het St. Elisabeth-gesticht by Ir.R. Meischke

The orphans that are the focus of my research, all females between the ages of two and 13 years, spent their final days in the Maagdenhuis Roman Catholic Orphanage for Girls from 1850-1900 (1). During my time spent in the lab with these orphans which number over 200 individuals, I was able to weave a narrative for the group of girls and young women who suffered greatly, and gain a more holistic view of care in the past in underfunded facilities that served as homes for the impoverished, orphaned and abandoned.

How did so many girls’ lives get cut short? In 19th century Netherlands it was common to lose one or both parents. Life expectancies were low, maternal mortality rates were high, and the population was plagued with epidemics of diseases such as smallpox and cholera (1). To address the growing number of orphaned children, the Dutch government passed a series of laws, one which ensured that any orphan under the age of 23 was placed in the care of a family member if one could be located (1). Family members were all too happy to bring an orphaned boy into the home, with their ability to someday provide for the family being a very appealing factor (1). However, this was not the case for far too many girls, leaving them abandoned and left to their own devices.

Place in society played a large role in the survival of the orphaned. The accessibility of better care due to high financial standing led an overall better quality of life and better survival rates. However, the orphans who were placed in underfunded institutions often suffered from malnutrition, rickets and other illnesses related to vitamin deficiencies, and infectious diseases such as leprosy (1). Diseases such as these leave markers on bone that can tell a story of hardship and suffering, and give us clues about health and community care in the past.

The standards of living in 19th century orphanages in the Netherlands were often atrocious. Poor hygiene conditions and tales of abuse weave a harrowing story of childhood experiences. This project was sobering, seeing that multitudes of imperative data that have historically been overlooked due to the lack of focus on children and young adults. The dearth of knowledge that could have otherwise been applied to current forensic casework involving children has left a void in methodology that must be filled in order to more accurately address life in the past on multiple levels (2).


From Amsterdam Het R.C. Maagdenhuis en het St. Elisabeth-gesticht by Ir.R. Meischke

Children are sensitive to their environment, and their remains leave many clues about population fertility, mortality, stress, and disease. My work attempts to continue to advance the bioarchaeology of childhood. We cannot make assumptions that children in the past had the same social experiences as they do in our current society. Thus, the bioarchaeology of childhood must be approached using both an assessment from the skeletal remains and the cultural context to create a better foundation for understanding care and the experiences of the young in the past.


[1] Beekink E, van Poppel F, Liefbroer AC. 1999. Surviving the loss of a parent in a

nineteenth-century Dutch provincial town. Journal of Social History, 32(3): 641-669

[2] Lewis, ME. 2007. The bioarchaeology of children: Perspectives from

biological and forensic anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.