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.

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.

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.

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).

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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.

References

[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.

 

 

 

 

Stressed-out mums and demanding children: understanding the maternal – infant interface at the beginnings of agriculture

Modern society is rooted in a dependency on agriculture. Although this is often thought to be a positive human development, the transition to agriculture-based societies had substantial negative impacts on human health, many of which continue to affect millions of people today. The bulk of these negative impacts are borne by the most vulnerable in society – mothers and children.

Recent research in the Arica region in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile is giving us new insight into how the roots of this transition to agriculture in prehistory affected human society, in particular mothers and their infants. Our research collaboration between the University of Otago in New Zealand, the University of Tarapacá Chile, and Durham University in England is using a multidisciplinary approach to reveal a picture of stresses associated with food shortages, and their possible connections to premature death and vitamin deficiencies in newborn babies.

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The Atacama Desert is well-known for the earliest evidence in the world for deliberate mummification of the dead, predating Egyptian mummies by more than two millennia. The intricate funerary rituals associated with the pre-agricultural Chinchorro people of this area were largely focused on infants and children. This has led some to hypothesise that it was a social response to high rates of foetal, infant and maternal death in these populations. Historically, archaeological research in the Atacama has focused on these pre-agricultural mummies, but recent research has highlighted periods of increasing infant mortality later in prehistory – during the transition to agriculture. The ultimate causes of this increase in stress, however, have eluded archaeologists.

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The project took a two-pronged approach to this problem, studying changes to diet using chemical signatures in bones and teeth, and assessing their health impacts by looking for signs of pathology on the skeletons of early agricultural populations. Published recently in the International Journal of Paleopathology, and covered here, an Early Formative Period site just transitioning to agriculture (3,600-3,200 years before present) showed that all the infants have evidence of scurvy (nutritional vitamin C deficiency). Interestingly, so did an adult female found buried with her probable unborn child. First author Anne Marie Snoddy says “In addition to contributing to knowledge of the interplay between environment, diet, and health in the Ancient Atacama, this paper provides the first direct evidence of potential maternal-foetal transference of a nutritional deficiency in an archaeological sample”.

This study also used new methods for analysing diet and stress using the chemistry of bones and teeth, these also reveal a picture of early-life stress recently published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and covered by Forbes.  “The preservation of mummies in the Atacama gives us an unprecedented opportunity to use tooth chemistry to look at prehistoric infant experience. We have chemical evidence of stress from tissues which form even before the infant is born, showing how the mother’s health is impacting her baby” says author Charlotte King. This work contributes to an understanding of the sensitive relationship between the health of the mother and infant in the past, including the maternal-infant transference of stress signals and micronutrient deficiencies.

 

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Anne Marie Snoddy doing her palaeopathological analyses in the Museo Universidad de Tarapacá San Miguel de Azapa, Arica, Chile.

 

The research is giving new insight into human adaptation to one of the harshest environments in the world. The Atacama Desert experiences less than 2 mm per year of rainfall, making agricultural resources very vulnerable. However, the marine environment is remarkably rich, owing to the upwelling of the cold Humboldt ocean current, resulting in an abundance of marine mammals and fish. Chemical analysis is showing that the people of the desert buffered themselves against the vulnerability of their agricultural resources by continued reliance on these marine foods. Even so, periodic food shortages from El-Niño events in the area were likely, and the skeletal evidence for vitamin C deficiency is interpreted as being related to these events.

A version of this story was originally published here.