Numerous alien and conspiracy theories have been put forward in the past to explain archaeological finds. One such example that has gained significant media attention is the partially mummified human fetus given the name “Ata” after being found in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile in 2003. The alien theories and human growth disorder theories that have been put forward are based on the purported unusual skeletal and soft tissue morphology. In 2013, it was reported by geneticist Garry Nolan that the DNA analyses supports that the individual is human. However at this same time it was reported that Ralph Lachman (clinical pediatric radiologist) claimed the skeletal biology was not human-like, citing numerous observations, including “the high level of calcification observed in the legs suggested it was more likely a child between the ages of five and eight years old”.
Figure 1: Naturally mummified fetus from the Atacama Desert, Northern Chile.
Recently I was approached by a researcher, let’s call him Mr X, who was producing a report from his re-examination of the Atacama specimen. When Mr X asked my opinion to be used in his report he didn’t supply me with any primary data to base my analyses on, so my preliminary observations were based on photos I could find online. Prior to my correspondence with Mr X my colleague based in the UK was asked to comment on the specimen from an ancient DNA perspective. Although the draft report that Mr X emailed for my comments after I had given my preliminary observations concludes that this individual is most likely a human fetus, which I agree with, I was dismayed with a number of things.
Firstly, in this report draft, my colleague’s comments were taken out of context and severely criticized, and included in the report without consent. Perhaps this was because my colleague declined to be sucked into spending precious time and several thousand pounds (things that are not plentiful for scientists these days!) on aDNA analyses of the individual. I should note that my colleague was not worried about Mr X’s criticism of him, but it raised alarm bells for me.
The second issue, and one that I want to discuss here is the lack of proper osteological analyses and reporting, which reminded me somewhat of Dr Kristina Killgrove’s Who Needs an Osteologist installments. Mr X asked me to comment on Mr Z’s (human anatomist and embryologist) interpretations of his findings before writing the report. Mr X advised me to keep the report confidential, as this was being prepared for the private ‘owner’ of the remains based in Spain. The ownership of archaeological remains is problematic in itself. While Mr X had perfectly valid interpretations, a human osteologist’s input is needed for valid scientific analyses of human bone, methodological description and interpretations of the findings. I saw no explanation of age estimation methods, no reference to any human osteological developmental texts, and no inclusion of any studies of mummified soft tissues. As well as bad reporting, Mr X did not acknowledge my input into his findings.
Although I am not going to release the contents of the report, I want to share with you some of my communications with Mr X. Here are some of my explanations of previous biological ‘anomalies’ argued to exist in the Atacama specimen.
1st ‘anomaly’: The 11th and 12th pair of ribs seem to be missing in the radiographs.
My response: The ribs may not be visible in a radiograph as the 11th and 12th ribs are smaller ‘floating’ ribs in that they do not articulate anteriorly at the sternum, are not as robust, and are shorter that the other ribs. There is little information about the formation of ribs in-utero and the timing of the primary centres of ossification (where they first start forming as bone). Initial formation of the 5th-8th ribs start at about 8th-9th weeks in-utero (Scheuer and Black 2000: 238). Scheuer and Black (2000: 238) also state that “by the eleventh and twelfth weeks of intra-uterine life, each rib (often with the exception of the twelfth)”, which implies that the lower ribs are later forming, so may not be as visible in a radiograph.
2nd ‘anomaly’: The seemingly advanced stage of epyphiseal union of the femur, suggesting an age of 5-10 years.
[epiphyseal fusion refers to when the shaft of the bone and the extremity fuse together when the bone stops growing in length]
My response: The statement of the advance stage of epiphyseal fusion is incorrect. If there was fusion/union at the distal femur (which I am assuming they are talking about) this would suggest an adolescent, and thus older than 5-10 years. Regardless of this error in age estimation from epiphyseal fusion methods, I do not see evidence for union on the radiograph online – where is the ‘density’ that they are referring to? There is no ossification of the epiphyses (the unfused extremities of the femora or tibiae) to suggest that fusion of the diaphyses (shaft) and the epiphyses (extremity) would be possible. These bones and the development of these bones all look normal from my observations of the photos and radiographs online.
3rd ‘anomaly’: The epiphyseal plate x-ray density test for age determination suggested an age of 6-8 years old.
My response: This type of age estimation is problematic, and I don’t know any bioarchaeologist or forensic anthropologist who uses the method described. This can’t be applied to mummified remains if it relies on water density.
This is no alien. This was the result of a mother losing her baby early during her pregnancy in the past in South America.
Figure 2: My archaeologist colleague on our trip to an archaeological site in Arica region, Atacama desert, Chile.
Also see my post on human fetuses in the past here.
Recently a bioarchaeological paper on a Southeast Asian sample that I was an author was rejected by an international biological anthropology journal. Although the reviewers deemed the paper to be scientifically sound the Academic Editor rejected it based on a subjective value judgement that the results weren’t “significant or new” and recommended that it would have been “more suitable for a regional journal”. I couldn’t help but think that if it was something from other parts of the Old World that it would have been published, and that the work we are doing in Southeast Asia is not seen as important, despite addressing issues of direct relevance to the international archaeological research community. Our paper was significant in extending knowledge on the nature of agricultural development and human stress response in a tropical rice based environment, which challenges the universally applied model of health change. Never mind that half the world’s population lives in rice subsistence based societies, nor what our work can inform on the epidemiology of disease in tropical environments, and the unique archaeological context of socio-political and agricultural development that our research can address.
So to turn this negative energy into something constructive, I thought that I would showcase some recent Southeast Asian bioarchaeological work that was presented at a panel that Marc Oxenham (Australian National University) and I organised at the recent Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts (SEAMEO SPAFA) conference this week. The papers comprise some of the enlarging corpus of bioarchaeological work that is being done by local SE Asians and foreign researchers in the region (see also the recently edited volume The Routledge Handbook of Bioarchaeology in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands). Recent bioarchaeological research in Southeast Asia has been instrumental for illustrating variance to the internationally applied models of population biological response to agricultural development and intensification. There has been an increased interest in the bioarchaeological testing of explanatory models of the occupation of Mainland Southeast Asia, including a debate surrounding the suitability of the two-layered (replacement) settlement model, also of relevance to models of settlement in other parts of the world. Our session included papers with a range of methodological approaches including funerary analyses, dental and skeletal palaeopathology, isotopic analyses of diet and migration, and physical activity through entheseal (muscle attachment) changes.
The session commenced with work addressing broad issues of subsistence and natural and social environmental changes, and migration in the region. Marc Oxenham (co-authored with Anna Willis) started the session by interrogating what the ‘Neolithic’ in Southeast Asia means and asks the question of what influence farming in the region had on these communities and what implications this has for bioarchaeological interpretations. If populations are already sedentary and have high fertility and large settlement sizes, then would a pre- versus post-agricultural palaeopathological comparison be appropriate? I have also previously touched upon the issue of classification of sites into these categories here.
Charlotte King (University of Otago) then turned to a site-specific example of testing human variation during the agricultural transition using isotopic analyses to indicate diet and migration and geometric morphometrics as a genetic proxy from the prehistoric Thai site of Ban Non Wat. She did not find any definitive evidence for population replacement of the hunter-gatherer population by the early agriculturalists.
I presented a new biosocial model that is dovetailing the raft of archaeological and bioarchaeological evidence for a rapid socio-political and biological (‘health’) change in the Iron Age in the Upper Mun River Valley in northeast Thailand. By assessing the bioarchaeological evidence within an epidemiological context of the changing natural and social environment, we are starting to understand the changes of mortality and morbidity through transmission modes and the possible aetiologies of disease during this time.
In light of the model of swift change in social organisation and corresponding biological changes that are being seen in the region at this time, Stacey Ward (PhD candidate, Otago) is investigating social organisation and its influence on physiological stress through growth disruption at the Thai Iron Age site of Non Ban Jak.
Rebecca Jones (PhD candidate, Australian National University) then presented on her research that is assessing zooarchaeological evidence for the change in subsistence using two Vietnamese archaeological assemblages, the pre-agricultural site of Con Co Ngua, and the agricultural site of Man Bac, Vietnam.
Korakot Boonlop (PhD candidate, Leicester) presented preliminary oral pathology data from the Neolithic site of Nong Ratchawat in West-central Thailand. Comparative analyses from other sites in the region from later periods will provide a means to assess the impact of oral health with the intensification of agriculture.
Several papers addressed issues of cultural processes on the living and the dead. Rebecca Crozier (University of the Philippines) presented some fascinating evidence for cranial modification from Cebu in the Philippines. This research is starting to look not only at the cultural aspects of this practice, but also the health implications that this modification can have on individuals.
Melandri Vlok (Honours graduate student, ANU) presented a contextualised interpretation of the bioarchaeology of care of an individual who had sustained major leg trauma at the Metal period site of Napa in the Philippines. This lead to some interesting discussions poolside after the session for the development of the bioarchaeology of care model being applied to infants and children in past societies.
Myra Lara (Graduate student, University of Philippines) showcased the diversity of archaeological mortuary treatment practices in prehistoric northern and central Philippines. Her analyses attempted to correlate mortuary treatment over time and space within the Philippines and other Islands within the wider region.
Two talks looked at evidence for activity in the past and interpreted them with wider archaeological and other contextual evidence. Dicky Caesario Wibowo (Masters student, University of Indonesia) presented his analyses of physical activity based on entheseal changes from the late prehistoric site of Gilimanuk, Bali.
Sarah Agatha Villaluz (Graduate student, University of Philippines) assessed activity using entheseal changes in a sample from 18th century burial sites from the Philippines, and used historical and ethnographic evidence in her interpretation of possible habitual activities.
Other sessions at the conference also had biological anthropology papers, including a session on Ifugao archaeology and one on Palaeolithic archaeology.
Unfortunately a number of researchers not mentioned above couldn’t make it to our session because of the cost, which was especially prohibitive for Southeast Asian scholars. However, despite this, our session was one of the biggest at the conference, indicating the increased development of local expertise in the area. This success has stimulated me to start organising the next Southeast Asian Bioarchaeological Conference that we hope will be held in 2017. The last meeting was held in 2012 in Khon Kaen in Northeast Thailand and supported the attendance of over 70 delegates from 11 different countries. The main aim of these conferences are for the training and professional development of local students and academics in the field of bioarchaeology.
Photos courtesy SEAMEO-SPAFA
A recent story of a 4,800-year-old ‘mother’ cradling a baby has been pulling at the heart strings of people worldwide with sensationalist headlines such as “Mother’s enduring love for baby revealed as 5000-year-old fossil found” and “Fossil of 5000-year-old mother cradling baby found in Taiwan”. But is this story everything it’s really cracked up to be?
An archeological team working at a Neolithic site near the city of Taichung since 2014 has unearthed “48 sets of remains”, presumably the number of individual graves, representing the earliest burial site in Taiwan. One of these burials has been described as a mother and baby. However, the news accounts provide little information as to why the researchers believe this to be the case, apart from the placement of the baby with the adult female and the turning of her head to be “looking at her baby” (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The 4800-year-old “mother and baby” found in Taiwan (source: Reuters)
It is likely that if a female and newborn baby is found in a burial context that they died during childbirth (see my earlier post on fetuses in archaeology). Childbirth is the most critical time for both a mother and baby. This has even led some archaeologists to argue that higher mortality rates of young adult females compared with males represent the hazards of childbirth in the past.
The baby has been described as a foot and a half (about 46 cms), which is about the size of a newborn baby. However, looking at the photos and the videos from the news stories the baby looks too big to be a newborn. The only bones present seem to be from the waist-up. Looking at the relative size of the hands of the archaeologist cleaning the bones and the upper body of the baby (Figure 2), it may be that the size cited is for the upper body, supporting that the infant is older than a newborn. It is difficult to see the cranial bones to assess their development to infer an age-at-death. The cranial bones look thicker than a newborn, but it is unclear as it appears there is some concreted soil adhering to the surface of the bones. Given that this infant seems older than a newborn it is unlikely that they were mother and child.
Figure 2: Archaeologist cleaning the ‘mother-baby’ burial (photo: Reuters video).
In a small Neolithic community there may have been some kind of relationship between the adult female and the infant, or they may have only been buried together because their deaths coincided. Using a cross cultural example, in the Anglican burial tradition babies were interred with non-maternal women in instances of coinciding death (Roberts and Cox 2003: 253).
To assess if there is a biological relationship between this purported mother-baby pair, ancient DNA analyses could be undertaken, but this is difficult with preservation issues in tropical contexts. We should also keep in mind that a mother-child relationship is not always biological.
The fact that the adult female had her head turned to her left may be the result of the burial environment, as some bones can shift in open spaces such as coffins, or from the weight of soil on the bones. Further research looking at the positions of the bone could give more insight on the mode of burial.
We will have to await the scientific presentation of the findings from this site to evaluate the likelihood for this purported mother and baby.
New research using novel microscopic investigation of bacterial bioerosion of archaeological bone has shown that you can differentiate between stillborn and post-newborn babies. This was most exciting to me as offering a means to contribute to the debate of the interpretation of infanticide in the past, through an investigation of time of death.
Bioerosion is the removal of mineralised substrate through the action of organisms, and has been found to be the most common form of microbial attack of archaeological bone (Figure 1). The author of this new research, Tom Booth from the Natural History Museum, notes that although it was once believed that soil bacteria caused most of this bioerosion in bone, it is the gut microbia that is responsible for corpse putrification that causes this process. Based on the findings that it is the bacteria inside the body that produces this bioerosion, the author thought that this could be useful for assessing different mortuary treatments of the body.
Figure 1: Transmitted light micrograph of a human fresh bone transverse femoral thin section (top) demonstrating perfect microstructural preservation and a typical archaeological femoral section (bottom) where the internal microstructure has been extensively altered by bacteria (from Booth et al., 2015).
To investigate if there is any relationship between bacterial bone bioerosion and funerary treatment, Booth undertook a microscopic analysis of human bones from European prehistoric (4000 B.C. – A.D. 43) and British historical (A.D. 43 – present day) sites. These two assemblages were used as they have been found to have different funerary practices, with the historic period sites practicing burial soon after death, whereas the prehistoric sites have more variable mortuary practices, sometimes including postmortem modification. E.g. Booth and colleagues’ work that found evidence for mummification in Bronze Age Britain using this microscopic method has recently received media attention.
This research shows that irrespective of burial environment, including antiquity or soil type, there was immaculate histological preservation of almost half of the neonatal samples. This is interpreted as the result of sterility of stillborn infant intestinal tracts resulting in the bones being unaffected by the process of bacterial tunneling. In addition, most (12/15) of the unbioeroded newborn samples are from historical cemeteries where most of the other samples had been extensively bioeroded. A previous experimental study by White and Booth using pigs found that bone from stillborn neonatal carcasses had immaculate histological preservation due to the intrinsic sterility of newborn infant intestinal tracts.
Booth found that the soil type had no relationship with bacterial bioerosion. There was evidence for variation in bacterial bioerosion among the later prehistoric assemblages argued to be “consistent with the knowledge that these individuals were subject to variable early post mortem treatment that exposed the bones to diverse levels of bacterial attack.” Bacterial bioerosion in the historical assemblage was high, consistent with that expected within bones of intact bodies that had been interred soon after death.
The use of this novel method to differentiate stillborn vs post-newborn infants can contribute to extending our knowledge of the cause of death during the most crucial time for mother and child in the past, and may also have useful applications for the study of cultural beliefs around stillbirth and post-neonatal death.
Booth, T. J., A. T. Chamberlain and M. P. Pearson (2015). “Mummification in Bronze Age Britain.” Antiquity 89(347): 1155-1173.
Introducing snap-shots of research in the bioarchaeology of children
As part of this blog, I will feature the work of bioarchaeologists with an interest in infant and child remains through mini-interviews. In particular, I wish to highlight the work of emerging researchers in addition to established researchers. Our first interviewee is Dr Angela Clark, an Early Career Researcher who has an interest child development and morphology.
1) Tell me a little bit about your work?
All living people manage stress. My research addresses important anthropological questions regarding the effects of critical periods in human history, such as the agricultural transition, through examining stress indicators in the bones and teeth. The ultimate size and shape of the adult human skeleton is not only influenced by individual genetic potential, but is a result of the biosocial environment in which a child grew-up. Chronic stress during childhood has significant life-long effects on individual health and population well-being. My research aims to interpret episodes of childhood stress to enhance understanding of human adaptability and variability, and recognise how unique physical environments and sociocultural factors play their role in individual and population health.
2) How did you get into your field and why?
As a teenager I read books by the forensic anthropologist, Kathy Reichs. The human skeleton fascinated me, and I felt particularly drawn to the humanitarian aspect of returning the identity of the living person to the bones, and providing information of the circumstances surrounding an individuals’ death. Since then I have been privileged to examine humans remains, from archaeological contexts from the UK, Thailand, Peru, and the Cook Islands, and in the forensic context in New Zealand.
3) What is on the future horizon for your research?
I am particularly interested in the emerging field of forensic bioarchaeology, integrating my existing research skills with my professional connections and experience in forensic science to extend forensic human identification. My future research will use microscopic methods of human dental enamel to assess individual life-histories of early-life stresses and later health outcomes in both the survivors (adults) and non-survivors (children). From a forensic perspective, these methods can provide a detailed chronology of childhood stress, which can be as evidence in cases of chronic child abuse.
Dr Clark is a bioarchaeologist with research expertise in human skeletal and dental developmental plasticity as a response to stress, using a biosocial approach, with a regional focus of Southeast Asia. She is an Affiliate Researcher in the Biological Anthropology Research Group, Department of Anatomy, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, and is currently coordinating the Forensic Biology Summer School Paper at the University.
|Clark, A.L., Tayles, N., Buckley, H.R. and Neuman, F. (2015) The Rima Rau Burial Cave, Atiu, Cook Islands. Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology, Doi:10.1080/15564894.2015.1050131.|
|Tayles, N., Halcrow, S. and Clark, A. (2015) Ban Non Wat: Current research on late prehistoric people in the Upper Mun River Valley, Northeast Thailand. In: N.H. Tan (ed.) Advancing Southeast Asian Archaeology 2013. Bangkok: SEAMEO Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts (SPAFA). pp. 279-288.|
|Clark, A.L. (2014) Health and sexual dimorphism at Bon Non Wat: the effects of the intensification of agriculture in prehistoric Southeast Asia [Etat de sante et dimorphisme sexuel a Bon Non Wat: Effects de l’intensifiction de l’agriculture dans l’Asie du Sud-Est prehistorique]. BMSAP, 26 (3-4), 196-204.|
|Clark, A.L., Tayles, N. and Halcrow, S.E. (2014) Aspects of health in prehistoric mainland southeast Asia: Indicators of stress in response to the intensification of rice agriculture. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 153, 484-495.|
|Clark, A., Tayles, N. and Halcrow, S. (2012) Sexual dimorphism in adult skeletal remains at Ban Non Wat, Thailand, during the intensification of agriculture in early prehistoric southeast Asia. In: Proceedings of the twelfth annual conference of the British Association for Biological Anthropology|
The concept of fetuses in archeology probably brings to mind poignant images of the tiny bones of a baby in the pelvic cavity of a female adult skeleton, although finds such as these are actually rather rare. In practice, many bioarchaeologists apply the description of ‘fetus’ to babies from bioarchaeological samples identified as younger than 37 weeks gestational age (e.g. Halcrow et al. 2008; Lewis and Gowland 2007; Mays 2003; Owsley and Jantz 1985). However, there are problems associated with estimation of age-at-death of these babies, who may indeed be fetuses, but also may be premature births, or small-for-gestational age full-term births. If the medical definition of a fetus as an unborn baby is applied (Forfar et al. 2003; Halcrow and Tayles 2008; Lewis and Gowland 2007; Scheuer and Black 2000), the in-utero skeletons would seem to represent the only finds in archaeology that can be confidently identified as fetuses. However, even an apparent in-utero fetus may in fact have been a neonate mortality, illustrating the care with which research in this field needs to be completed.
Generally little bioarchaeological research considers fetuses. For example, some growth studies and demographic analyses do not include preterm infants because of lack of comparative fetal bone size data (e.g. Johnston 1961). Also, the attention afforded to purported evidence of infanticide, based primarily on the reported high number of perinates in some skeletal assemblages (see my previous blog story on this), has deflected interest away from the contributions that fetuses can make to understanding bioarchaeological questions, including maternal health and disease and social organization from mortuary ritual analyses (Bonsall 2013; Faerman et al. 1998; Gilmore and Halcrow 2014; Mays and Eyers 2011; Mays 1993; Mays and Faerman 2001; Smith and Kahila 1992).
It is believed that approximately 3 in 10 pregnancies are spontaneously aborted, with the majority of these occurring in the first trimester, most being the result of genetic abnormalities (Fisher 1951). First trimester fetuses are very unlikely to be recovered in the bioarchaeological context. Bone development does not start until approximately six–eight weeks gestational age, and any bone formation prior to the second trimester would be unlikely to be preserved because of the low level of mineralization, and/or would be extremely difficult to identify in an archaeological context. The only first trimester fetus reported from an archaeological context is from the Libben sample, Ohio, a Late Woodlands site occupied 8th-11th century AD (White 2000: 20, see figure 1). There are published instances of preserved fetal individuals from the second trimester, e.g. the well-preserved fetus of 20 weeks gestational age from the Kellis 2 site, Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt (Wheeler 2012: 223). Owsley and Jantz (1985) have found three fetuses younger than 28 weeks gestation at Arikara sites in South Dakota. Hillson (2009) has also reported the findings of fetuses as young as 24 gestational weeks from a large Classical period infant cemetery at Kylindra on Astypalaia, in Greece.
Figure 1. Fetal skeletal material from the prehistoric Libben site, the smallest burial ever recorded (from White et al. 2011: 329). The long bones measure less than 2 cms.
Types of fetus burials
Differentiating burial types has the potential to contribute to research on maternal health, and the cause of death for the mother and child in the past. For example, a premature birth is more likely to indicate poor health and/or nutritional status of a woman, compared with a baby who died around full-term from obstructed labor. Distinguishing the type of fetal death and burial, whether the baby was full-term, or a pre-term or small-for gestational age baby, in conjunction with evidence of stress and diet and of both the mother and baby may give insights into overall health in past populations (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Infant jar burials from the Iron Age site of Noen U-Loke, NE Thailand. Left: full-term infant, approximately 40 gestational weeks (burial 100); right: pre-term infant, or ‘fetus’, approximately 30 gestational weeks (burial 89). (Photograph courtesy of C.F.W. Higham)
If the skeletal remains of a baby are found crouched in a fetal position within the pelvic cavity of an adult female, the mother likely died while the fetus was in-utero, before or during labor. The pregnant woman may therefore have died due to pregnancy or labor complications (Lewis 2007: 34). There is very little evidence for in-utero fetuses in the bioarchaeological context. Approximately 20 cases of pregnant or laboring females (i.e., interred with fetal remains in-situ) have been published in the archaeological literature, being argued to represent complications from childbirth (e.g. Ashworth et al. 1976; Cruz and Codinha 2010; Hawkes and Wells 1975; Högberg et al. 1987; Smith and Wood-Jones 1910, in Lewis 2007; Lieverse et al. 2015; Malgosa et al. 2004; O’Donovan and Geber 2010; Owsley and Bradtmiller 1983; Persson and Persson 1984; Pounder et al. 1983; Rascon Perez et al. 2007; Sjovold et al. 1974; Roberts and Cox 2003; Wells 1978).
The dearth of literature on in-utero fetuses in bioarchaeology may not be due to absence of evidence, but rather from the small bones being missed or misidentified during excavation, or reported only in the grey literature. There are numerous accounts of fetuses being misidentified as animal bones during excavation (e.g. Ingvarsson-Sundström 2003). For example, Roberts and Cox (2003) have reported at least 24 unpublished cases of fetuses from British excavations. There are further instances of fetal bones being found co-mingled with adult burials post-excavation, which may represent a baby in-utero, or a possible mother and baby post-birth burial (S. Clough, pers. comm.).
Bioarchaeologists have reported on cases of purported obstructed labor causing maternal and fetal perinatal death based on positioning of the fetus in the pelvic cavity or the finding of preterm mummified remains in-utero (Arriaza et al. 1988; Ashworth et al. 1976; Lieverse et al. 2015; Luibel 1981; Malgosa et al. 2004; Wells 1975).
If a perinate is found buried alongside an adult, with the same head orientation, then the infant has been buried post-birth, whether naturally or by caesarian section (Lewis 2007: 34) (Figure 3). In some contexts it is very common for newborns to be placed on the chest of adult women (presumably their mother) (Standen et al. 2014). To identify post-birth ‘fetuses’ archaeologically, if the majority of the infant remains are in the pelvic cavity of the adult, yet the legs are extended and/or the cranium lies among the ribcage, then the baby may have been delivered and then placed on top of the mother’s (or other adult’s) torso during burial (Lewis 2007: 34). It is argued that as both mother and baby bodies’ skeletonize, the baby’s bones can become settled among the mother’s ribs and vertebrae. This is important to note as these neonates may be mistaken for breech, obstructed labors in the archaeological context (e.g. Willis and Oxenham 2013). Willis and Oxenham (2013) describe an ‘in-utero breech’ presentation of a 38 gestational week fetus from Neolithic Southern Viet Nam. They describe the cranium as “below the mother’s right lower ribs” (it is not clear if they mean inside the abdominal/thoracic cavity or inferior to the right lower ribs) and the postcranial skeleton as “extended down toward the mother’s pelvis” with the left femur “positioned within the mother’s pelvic cavity and a tibia … positioned beside [lateral] the lesser trochanter of the mother’s right femur.” They also state the “right pars lateralis [part of the base of the occipital bone of the cranium] was concreted to the anterosuperior portion of the shaft of the 10th right rib of the mother, near the sternal end.” Given this partially extended (non-fetal) positioning and the part of the cranial base being found anterior to the rib cage), it could be possible that the baby was not in the abdominal cavity, but placed on top of the mother’s torso after birth.
Figure 3. Full-term neonate (burial 48) buried alongside an adult female (burial 47) from Khok Phanom Di (photograph courtesy of C.F.W. Higham). This could possibly represent a perinate and mother who died from complications during or following childbirth.
Ancient DNA analyses may be used to assess the relationship of the adult and fetal burials where the fetus has been placed on the purported mother, or the archaeological context is unclear. Lewis (2007: 35) has argued that this is important to distinguish these relationships, as in some contexts, e.g. in the Anglican burial tradition, babies were interred with non-maternal women in instances of coinciding death (Roberts and Cox 2003: 253).
Multiple fetal pregnancies and births
There have been two reported instances of twin fetuses in-utero in the bioarchaeological literature (Lieverse et al. 2015; Owsley and Bradtmiller 1983), with others found in a post-birth context. There has been a recent increase in the interest in multiple births in bioarchaeology, including an investigation of social identity and concepts of personhood through the investigation of mortuary treatment (e.g. Einwögerer et al. 2006; Halcrow et al. 2012). Human twins are rare, with approximately one occurrence for every 100 births (Ball and Hill 1996). However, they appear in the literature more commonly than expected, compared with singleton fetuses (e.g. Black 1967; Chamberlain 2001; Crespo et al. 2011; Einwögerer et al. 2006; Flohr 2014; Halcrow et al. 2012; Lieverse et al. 2015; Owsley and Bradtmiller 1983). This is probably because they are seen as more significant by the archaeologist.
An example of a possible twin burial was found in an Upper Paleolithic site of Krems-Wachtberg, Austria (Einwögerer et al. 2006). The infants from this double burial were identified as twins from their identical age (as estimated from their dentition), same femora size and their simultaneous interment (both estimated at full-term age at death). Interestingly the bodies lay under a mammoth scapula and a part of a tusk and were associated with 30 ivory beads. Einwögerer et al. (2006) suggest, based on this mortuary evidence, that these newborns were an important part of their community. Another case of a twin burial is from the mid fourth-century site of Olèrdola in Barcelona, Spain (Crespo et al. 2011). The two newborns were found at the same stratigraphic level with their lower limbs entwined, indicating that they were buried simultaneously. We (Halcrow et al. 2012) havev also presented an extremely rare finding of at least two and possibly four twin burials from a 4,000-3,000 year old BP Southeast Thailand site, offering a methodological approach for the identification of archaeological twin (or other multiple birth) burials and a social theoretical framework to interpret these in the past.
Post-mortem birth (‘coffin-birth’)
Post-mortem birth or ‘coffin-birth’ refers to the occurrence of fetuses that were in-utero when the mother died and were expelled after burial (O’Donovan and Geber 2010) (Figure 4). This is also talked about by Katy Meyers Emery in her blog story on coffin birth in her blog Bones Don’t Lie. Post-mortem birth by fetal extrusion has been documented in rare forensic cases from the build up of gas within the abdominal cavity resulting in the emission of the fetus (Lasso et al. 2009; Schultz et al. 2005). Lewis (2007: 34-37, 91) and O’Donovan et al. (2009) argue that if fetal remains are complete and in a position inferior to and in-line with the pelvis outlet, with the head oriented in the opposite direction to the mother, then there is the possibility of coffin birth (Figure 3). If they lie within the pelvic outlet, this means that there was partial extrusion during decomposition (Hawkes and Wells 1972). However, partial extrusion could also be the result of an obstructed labor of a baby in the breech position, but this would likely result in extrusion of the lower limbs. Sayer and Dickenson (2015) argue that postmortem fetal extrusion is implausible under some burial conditions and with that decomposition of the baby in-utero would mean that it isn’t likely to be birthed from an undilated cervical canal. This, however, assumes that there was no dilation at the time of death of the mother.
Figure 4. Potential coffin birth (from Appleby et al. 2014)
The investigation of mortuary treatment of pregnant women may give us information on social identity related to childbearing and fetuses themselves. For example the discovery of a 34-36 week old fetus cremated with the ca. 850 B.C. “Rich Athenian Lady” led to a recognition that her grave wealth may have been related to her dying while pregnant or during childbirth, rather than primarily her social status (Liston and Papadopoulos 2004).
Research of the archaeology of grief is starting to consider community members’ responses to infant and fetal death (e.g. Cannon and Cook 2015; Murphy 2011). The purported marginalization of fetuses along with infants in the archaeological record, including location and simplified mortuary treatment has led some scholars to interpret that they were of little concern beyond immediate family members (Cannon and Cook 2015). Considering literature on intense grief after miscarriage and infant death starts to challenge the notion that their loss was of little consequence (Murphy 2011).
NB: Part of this story is from the chapter:
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I often hear phrases such as: “I don’t know how you do it” and “your children must be very flexible with your job”. These well-meaning remarks often play on my anxiety as a mother and an academic who has the added challenge of having to undertake fieldwork and data collection overseas. I study human remains from archaeological sites and have worked in Thailand since 2002 and also in Laos, Cambodia and Chile. Because all the skeletal material from these projects are curated locally I do most of my fieldwork and data collection overseas.
I have just come back home to New Zealand after a stint in Northeast Thailand doing data collection from infants and children from an Iron Age site with my two children in tow, a 22-month-old and 10-year-old. Most of my research in bioarchaeology involves working with infants and children. Just as this age group are sensitive indicators of population health today, so too are they good indicators of cultural and health change in the past.
As a parent, I need to balance my professional work with childcare, which for me means packing up my two children for weeks or months on end and re-introducing them to the different languages, cultures, foods, smells, and exotic flora and fauna!
This really is a great opportunity for my children to experience other cultures and languages, but presents some rather major challenges for both me and them. This means leaving family and friends and sometimes missing school, and sporting and our own cultural events. For example, this year we spent Christmas in Thailand, which was of a non-event in a way.
Here are some photos from the early days of my fieldwork in Thailand at the archaeological site of Ban Non Wat, Non Sung Province, Northeast Thailand, which has an unusually long time span from early agricultural development through to the late metal ages (3,800-1,500BP).
Over several excavation seasons at Ban Non Wat a total of about 700 individuals were excavated with about one-third of these aged less than 15 years. This site is very important for documenting the biological and demographic changes that were occurring in the region with the intensification of agricultural practices. The general bioarchaeological model of health change posits that with the introduction of agriculture there is a deterioration of health as a result of the increase of sedentism and population density, leading to more insanitary living conditions. However, my work and others from mainland Southeast Asia is challenging this Neolithic Transition model, which is mainly based on bioarchaeological investigation in North America and Europe. What we are finding is evidence for a very late and swift heath and demographic transition in the Iron Age. This is particularly exciting as it fits nicely with archaeological evidence at this time period for an intensification of wet rice agriculture, and changes in water management and socio-economic systems.
My recent data collection season was focused on the the site of Non Ban Jak, which is geographically very close to Ban Non Wat. This site is particularly important because it presents the best preserved collection of Iron Age burials in the region and has a very large proportion of infants represented (potentially half of the skeletal collection). At present we have over 145 individuals represented at this site, and have just secured significant funding for future excavation and analyses of the human and cultural material at this site.
The baby was petrified of the nanny for much of the time this season working on these remains, so my work plan had to be flexible. I worked solidly during her afternoon naps and the evenings, and when she was distracted by the 10 year-old. Sometimes she ‘helped’ washing stones beside me.
With the extension of research at this site, and further research opportunities planned in the region, my fieldwork with infants and children – both past and present – will continue into the future.
Over the years I have developed a general response for when people ask me how I do it. I reply: “It is challenging, but I wouldn’t change my family or my work for the world.”