Why were so many babies murdered in the past?

Hundreds of babies of prostitutes getting thrown down a water well in ancient Roman times in Israel; whole cemeteries of unwanted ‘brothel babies’ in Roman period Britain; thousands of Carthaginian babies sacrificed; and purported sacrificial Mayan child victims with ‘supernatural’ obsidian stones. These are just some of the kinds of sensational research stories on infant burials from archaeological collections that are frequently reported. The preoccupation of archaeological research with the subject of infant murder and sacrifice may conjure up images of babies being uncared for in the past, and that infanticide was a common or even accepted practice. However, as with any research, it is important to ask how we can check the validity of these interpretations. Using multi-faceted anthropological studies, we can get closer to disentangling the truth on infant murder in the past.

In legal terms “infanticide” refers to the deliberate act of killing any infant under the age of 12 months. The act of killing unwanted babies is often carried out at the time of birth (the neonatal period), so the term “infanticide” is often used as a synonym for “neonaticide”. It has been stated that babies have been killed in many cultures and in all times in history. Anthropologist Laila Williamson (1978: 61) has gone as far to argue that:

“Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunter gatherers to high civilizations, including our own ancestors. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule.”


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Figure 1. Anti-infanticide tract depiction of infanticide by drowning, Qing Dynasty, circa 1800.

Non-human primates, including our nearest living relatives, the chimpanzee, have been observed carrying out infanticide. In chimpanzees, this is typically undertaken by an unrelated adult male, the reasoning often hypothesised to be a type of sexual selection to confer reproductive advantage to the male. More recently female-led infanticide has been observed in chimpanzees, the perpetrators also being unrelated to the infants.

The motives for human infanticide are varied. Unique to humans is gender-based infanticide, and it is a parent who often carries out the infant killing. A striking example of gender-based practice is modern female feticide and infanticide, with around half a million female fetuses purposely aborted in India each year alone, as well as the thousands of female babies that are killed soon after birth. Other causative factors for human infanticide relate to poverty, social pressure, and the birth of infants with severe physical deformities. The interplay of poverty and domestic violence towards mothers are argued to have played an integral role in the famous ethnographic research by Scheper-Hughes in which she argued selective neglect or “passive infanticide” occurred in shantytown Brazil.

The actual acts of infanticide in humans are usually non-violent or ‘passive’, including exposure and smothering. The most common method for killing babies in non-Christian societies was drowning. For example, historical texts from the Qing Dynasty often use the term ni nü (to drown girls). There is also documentary evidence for drowning in the Roman Empire, classical Greece, and in Viking Scandinavia. The practice of infanticide is also often carried out covertly and without normative burial ritual.

Although there is documentary evidence for the practice of infanticide in many places and times in the world, most cultures actually condemn its practice, and some would argue that instances of infanticide are generally isolated.

Why, then, is there such a research focus on the practice of infanticide in our past? Do these simply appeal to researchers for publishing a high impact publication, or to news agencies publishing sensational click-bait stories that tug at our heartstrings?

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Figure 2. Early 19th century engraving by an artist associated with William Carey, purporting to show infanticide by drowning in the Ganges River.

Although anthropologists are generally very careful to recognise their own cultural biases in their research, there is undoubtedly a hangover from the 19th century interest of “others” and “dark” practices. Or do anthropologists in recognising their subjective biases on the importance placed on children in Western society today overcompensate and inadvertently dismiss the value placed on infants in the past?

While infanticide did happen in the past, whole cemeteries devoted to murdered infants seem fictitious when we consider a more contextually nuanced approach. A case in point of an unsupported interpretation of infanticide comes from the Yewden Roman villa site at Hambleden in Buckinghamshire, England. The main argument for infanticide at this site (and other purported infanticide sites) is a high peak of deaths at around the time of birth. While the site was reported as a “mass grave,” the 97 infants were buried over a period of 300 years. Of the 35 infants that have been analysed these range in age from 32-43 gestational weeks (around 7 months gestation to into the newborn period). A researcher from the project has been reported in media arguing that this was a burial site connected with a brothel and a curator of the local county museum has been reported saying it was some type of birthing centre, perhaps connected to a shrine for a mother goddess.

There is no contextual evidence that links this burial site to a brothel, and 97 infant deaths over a few hundred years is not an excessively high mortality rate. The assumption that a high rate of infant mortality around the time of birth equals infanticide is problematic as there are many archaeological samples that have high mortality peaks around the world, including sites in North America, Serbia, Greece, Egypt and Southeast Asia. Historical medical mortality records also show a high peak of death occurring around birth and it is acknowledged as the most critical time in a baby’s life. The birth of pre-term babies (younger than 37 weeks gestation) at this site would have also likely had impacts on their chance of survival. A study by Mays and colleagues of an infant from the site with cuts to the femur (thigh) bone that occurred around the time of death suggests obstetric problems causing death. The cuts are consistent with the practice of embryotomy, which were undertaken in cases of fetal death during obstructed labour.

Screen Shot 2017-09-21 at 11.23.59 AMFigure 3: A newborn infant from Hambleden site (Credit: BBC)

The infant graves at the site adhere to Roman burial custom, where infants are normally placed in and around buildings and villa yards and afforded a simple burial. These burials are inconsistent with those of individuals who are killed in instances of infanticide from exposure or drowning, as this is often done covertly and without this type of burial ritual. Ancient DNA evidence from this site also provides no evidence for a sex bias in infant death.

Unwanted infants who were not cared for seems to be the default assumption in many archaeological interpretations in the past. Indeed some were unwanted, as some are also unwanted today. However, using sources of information drawn from the mortuary record, modern and archaeological mortality data, maternal health and obstetric factors, and historical information on the practice of infanticide and care for the young, we can turn our attention to engage with multiple facets of infants lives, albeit cut short.

Stunted near the start of life: Evidence for severe deprivation from London’s poorest 19th century parish

New research has uncovered the extent of the impact of ill health on the urban underprivileged during the Victorian era with finds of severe growth retardation of infant and child bones. The authors show that the social deprivation at Bethnal Green in London, UK, was so extreme that this affected the growth of the long bones of babies as young as a couple of months of age.

The authors, Rachel Ives and Louise Humphrey, explain that Bethnal Green was recognised as London’s poorest parish and that “by 1847 the parish ‘had long possessed an unenviable notoriety on account of its neglected state and defective sanitary condition’ (Gavin, 1848, 5). Houses were frequently reported as damp, dark and poorly ventilated.”

This research assessed the growth of more than 140 female and male infants and children aged from 2 months to 12 years of age. Because there was sex information from the parish records, the researchers could explore sex-related growth. Here they found that there was divergence between boy and girl growth with evidence that girls experienced more deprivation. The research also showed that there was little catch-up growth in the older children, and that less than 20 percent of the individuals assessed attained 90 percent of the growth of a modern North American standard.

Although there were attempts to improve the conditions at the parish at the time, the need to house a rapidly growing population meant that these initiatives were largely unsuccessful. The health impacts of overcrowding and associated insanitary conditions led to high mortality rates (>50 percent) in children younger than 5 years of age, largely attributed to gastrointestinal disease. For some of the infants at the parish, the need for the mothers to work away from home meant that early weaning or supplementation of breastfeeding with cow’s milk would have occurred. There is evidence that contaminated water was added to cow’s milk, which would have contributed to waterborne bacterial illnesses. The authors describe historical evidence for the lack of clean water due to largely non-functioning water pipes and contamination by nearby cesspools.  Furthermore, the crowded living conditions and poor economic situation for many meant that contagious illnesses such as scarlet fever, influenza, measles, smallpox and whooping cough were more easily contracted throughout the community.

It is clear that the very young bore the brunt of the deprived conditions at the time. Further work looking at evidence for maternal health and for stress and disease from the skeletons may provide more information of the children’s shortened lives during this time of unprecedented population growth in Britain.

Snap-shots of research: Personhood of perinates in the past

This month we are featuring Dr Tracy Betsinger who is an Associate Professor from SUNY Oneonta. Prior to joining SUNY Oneonta, Dr. Betsinger held a post-doctoral research position with the Global History of Health Project at Ohio State University.


Tracy working on a perinate from the post-medieval Drawsko collection, Poland (while pregnant with a fetal skeleton shirt on!).

Tell me a little bit about your work:

I’m a bioarchaeologist interested in patterns of health (in general) and infectious disease, particularly treponemal disease, the effects of cultural factors such as status and urbanization on health, and the relationship between mortuary patterning/treatment and identity/personhood, especially among perinates. I work on materials from a variety of contexts, including prehistoric populations from eastern Tennessee and medieval and post-medieval populations from Poland.

How did you get into your field and why?

My interest in perinatal mortuary patterning was a fortuitous happenstance. While working with a colleague, Dr. Amy Scott, on post-medieval Polish materials, we noted the fairly large number of perinatal remains, many of which were well preserved (several with the tympanic rings in place!). We were examining other mortuary patterns at the time, when we decided to investigate the perinatal mortuary pattern to determine whether it matched older subadults or was distinct in some way. We also explored what this might mean in terms of their personhood and identity. The more I began to research perinates, perinatal mortuary patterns, and ontology, the more intrigued I became. I shared my research with a cultural anthropologist in my department (Dr. Sallie Han) whose research is focused on pregnancy and we found much common ground! The result of this was a four-fields anthropology of fetuses, initially an American Anthropological Association session and now a soon-to-be in-press edited volume.

What is on the future horizon for your research?

More recently, I have begun exploring perinatal mortuary treatment with the prehistoric populations from Tennessee. This work is just beginning, but I’m hoping to explore perinatal mortuary patterns/personhood temporally and geographically in the region and dovetail that information about what we know is going on health-wise in East Tennessee. My colleagues (Dr. Michaelyn Harle, Dr. Maria O. Smith) and I have only completed some general assessments of perinates, but so far, there seems to be a consistency in their treatment with older subadults and across time and space. We are planning more nuanced analyses of their mortuary treatment and are hoping to analyze remains for bacterial bioerosion with the hopes of identifying stillbirths from live births.

How teeth can tell the story of your secret stresses

As the most vulnerable members of any population, infants and children are dependent on others for their survival. They are the most represented groups in cemetery samples, simply because surviving past the first year of life is no mean feat when you are so fragile. Providing you survive childhood, the stresses you experience during that period can go on to seriously affect your adult life. Childhood experience, then, is extremely interesting to the bioarchaeologist – not just because it’s nice not to ignore entire sectors of the population, but also because what’s happening to the children reflects big things like cultural ideas surrounding childhood, environmental stresses and disease environments.

When we study infants and children in cemetery samples, however, what we see is just a single moment in time. We might see indicators of stress if it was not so severe as to completely halt bone formation. We might get hints of infant feeding practices if something particularly unusual was occurring. We definitely get a biased sample – to study childhood archaeologically we have to look at individuals who did not make it past childhood! So how can we get an insight into childhood health in the past when we have biased samples and individuals who may or may not have recorded the stresses they were experiencing in their bones?

The answer may lie in geochemical techniques. Bioarchaeologists have long-recognised that tissue chemistry can give insight into childhood experience. Changes to isotopic ratios in bones, for example, can help to pinpoint when weaning was occurring. More recently though incremental isotopic techniques have been developed that allow us to look at experiences over the life course – not just at a single point in time. Tissues that grow at known rates (like teeth, hair and nails) can be sliced into increments. Each of these increments represents a period of time in a person’s life and we can use incremental values to build a profile, showing changes to tissue chemistry over time. Why is that a big deal? Because it means we can look at changes to tissue chemistry in archaeological infants and children to see changes to diet and physiological stress over time, leading up to time of death. But perhaps more importantly we can look at the early-forming tissues of adults who survived childhood, to get an insight into their childhood experience and whether or not it was different to our non-survivors. Goodbye osteological paradox (ok, that’s an exaggeration, but it’s a good step on the way to removing bias).

Julia Beaumont (Bradford) and Janet Montgomery (Durham) are pioneering this kind of work, showing maternal and infant stress levels in Irish famine samples, and investigating the implications these have for survival. They’ve shown that they can see differences in weaning behavior between survivors and non-survivors and evidence for maternal stress in the increments that form while the infant is still in the womb. They’ve even spotted evidence for the introduction of famine relief food in the form of ‘Indian meal’ (maize), which handily has a carbon isotope signal that is very different to the much more negative values of the traditional Irish diet. The work being done on childhood during the Irish famine is extremely cool and, because it’s a relatively well-documented historical event, there are written sources like workhouse records that researchers can use to add to and support their interpretations. Lucky them!


Excerpt from the Minutes of the Board of Guardians, Kilkenny Union (9 March 1843), describing the death from starvation of an infant of 2 months in the workhouse. Photo taken by Jonny Geber at the Kilkenny County Library (Local Studies 6/2K).

Work in modern and historic contexts is building up a picture of the myriad of different isotopic changes which can occur during childhood. In these contexts we either have very good knowledge of the childhood experience (as in clinically examined infants) or can extrapolate it from historical records (as in the Irish famine context). As incremental isotopic techniques are increasingly applied we are building up what is effectively a reference library, showing which changes might be related to weaning, which might relate to the introduction of complementary foods. We can also see what maternal-infant stress transfer might look like isotopically, and identify stress spikes throughout tissue formation.

This is especially useful for people like me, who work in prehistoric contexts. Here the childhood experience is very much a mystery, and having references from which to interpret isotopic results becomes important. For my work in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile it’s particularly useful because there are so many competing influences over the isotopic composition of tissues. I need all the help I can get in my interpretations!

The Atacama Desert is a crazy place to live, and it’s a crazy place isotopically. To start with the aridity of the desert environment means that terrestrial food sources have isotopic ratios that are well outside of what we’d consider ‘normal’ elsewhere. Secondly, baseline stress levels are likely to be through the roof. The Atacama is the driest hot desert on earth (fun fact: technically Antarctica is a drier ‘desert’, because all its water is tied up in the form of ice/snow). Where I work there are snowmelt fed rivers which have allowed people to farm the valleys since around 1500BC, but even then it’s precarious. So our isotopic profiles are probably going to be affected by stress at least as much as they are affected by infant/child feeding practices. In fact, there’s a prevailing theory in the area that infants and children weren’t just under nutritional stress, they were also being systematically poisoned by the extremely high heavy metal content (especially arsenic) of the rivers. Good times.


The San Jose ‘river’ bed, Arica. Taken by the author, November 2014. Water is a precious resource in this area, and the river is used extensively for crop irrigation, meaning by the time it reaches the sea in the city of Arica, for much of the year there is no water there at all.

As a final complicating factor, the area has played host to a variety of different polities, including the Tiwanaku people and later the Inkas, who are likely to have brought with them useful complementary foods such as maize, but also different cultural expectations regarding infant/child care and feeding. But in a prehistoric context we can’t be totally sure what these were. We have some tantilising hints from later Spanish ethnographers who observed the Inka, and occasionally wrote about their childcare practices. As per usual though, these accounts tend to focus on royalty and royal males in particular, things as ‘mundane’ as women and children rarely get a look in. The brief mentions of Inka childcare do paint a picture of a rather laissez-faire attitude to young ones, with multiple accounts speaking of how it was considered weakness to hold babies, and Garcillaso de la Vega talking of keeping infants in holes in the ground beyond a certain age. There’s even a potentially (hopefully?!) exaggerated mention of sending them to work in the silver mines for misbehavior. Not very useful on the whole though, and in the northern Atacama, which was on the periphery of the Empire, these customs may not even have applied.


Vessels like this kero (qero) appear in the archaeological record from the Middle Horizon (450-900AD) onwards. Used for the ceremonial drinking of chicha (maize beer), they highlight the incoming of external polities and their customs. Photo is of a Tiwanaku period kero in the collections of the Museo Larco, Lima and was taken by the author.


Illustration of a swaddled Inka infant in their crib from Guaman Poma’s ethnography “nueva corónica y buen gobierno”. Accessed online through Det Kongelige biobiotek

All of these things combine to make a gloriously chaotic picture of early life in the Atacama. In looking at incremental isotopic profiles from my individuals, we have evidence for almost every kind of infant/child life-experience you can imagine. Some show broadly what we’d expect for a child in any context – a signal for breastfeeding, followed by a gradual shift down to adult isotopic ratios as weaning occurs. Other profiles are dominated by stress signals, with high maternal nitrogen isotope ratios probably signifying maternal stress, and continued stress throughout infancy. We can see the use of maize as a complementary food during weaning for some individuals, but others from the same time period seem to completely ignore it, weaning onto different resources instead.


Isotopic systems can be complicated. Particularly when you work in a desert.

All this isotopic chaos can be pretty frustrating. There was no uniformity in weaning behavior in any time period in the Atacama. No massive changes with the incoming of agriculture. No population-wide processes apparent at all. How am I supposed to get my high-impact, world-changing publications now?

But actually these incremental techniques we are begin to reveal more and more complexity in decision-making, and diversity in life experiences in the past. There is no single story of childhood in the Atacama, just like there was no single story during the Irish Famine, and no two childhoods are the same today. Using these new methods we’re building individual profiles, not population models. We can see more detail so of course the picture is going to get more complicated. And in many ways that’s what bioarchaeology is about – seeing the complexity of life, and giving the people whose remains we study back their own, individual stories.

Guest post written by Dr Charlotte King, Rutherford Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Otago (@showmethemummy) – bioarchaeologist, traveller and adventure-hunter. Big fan of isotopic systems, and desperately searching for agricultural origins.








Take a sneak peek at our new resource on the “Bioarchaeology of Childhood” coming soon to Oxford Bibliographies in Childhood Studies

We have a forthcoming large annotated bibliography on the Bioarchaeology of Childhood coming soon to Oxford Bibliographies online. Take a sneak peek here. This will be useful to all bioarchaeology and human osteoarchaeology students, and academics for research and teaching. Please contact me here to request a personal copy.

Note that this is now published online

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


Children and Anthropology Conferences: Past and present

Instead of a negative and complaining post on conferences and parenting, I want to highlight the proactive approach the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) is taking to support caregivers as well as ECRs in general at their 2017 meeting in New Orleans. I look forward to attending this conference and will co-chair a session on Conceptualising the Child: Identity and health in bioarchaeology with Mary Lewis and Rebecca Gowland.

I was dismayed last year at both the SAAs (Society for American Archaeology) and the AAPA meetings at the lack of childcare and facilities available to carers attending the conference, or information in general about external childcare arrangements. After contacting numerous people in the associations over several weeks about childcare arrangements, I gave up hired private nannys. This was very difficult for my just turn two-year-old who had really bad separation anxiety and made it very expensive with transport costs to and from the venue to attend to my children.

This time around AAPA has been proactive and provided members with a survey for childcare requirements for the 2017 meeting, as I understand has also happened at some of these conferences in the past. I am optimistic this may mean that there are some on-site childcare facilities available.

Last year AAPA also provided the 2016 Family Care Award for Early Career Women scholars, a Committee on Diversity Women’s Initiative (COD-WIN) initiative to assist those who are caring for dependent family member/s at home. There is no sign of the award this year (yet) but we can only remain optimistic.

AAPA also supports student attendance at the annual meeting through various means, e.g. the Pollitzer Student Travel Award and professional development mentoring opportunities


For those of you interested in our session at the AAPA, here is our abstract:

Conceptualising the Child: Identity and health in bioarchaeology

A child’s skeleton provides a rich repository of information relating to their physical and social worlds. This evidence, when properly contextualised, may be successfully harnessed by bioarchaeologists to explore such diverse aspects of childhood, including care and cultural constructions of the life course, the fluidity of gender and status identity with age, local disease ecologies, activities such as play and occupation, and even cases of physical abuse. Children have emerged as important social actors in the past, as individuals who exercise considerable agency, and whose presence and societal contributions are vital to properly consider when interpreting the archaeological record. Bioarchaeologists are increasingly aware of the importance of younger members of society to our understanding of past cultures and lifeways. Children, particularly perinates and infants, are now regarded as crucial to assessing maternal health, adult morbidity patterns and longevity. Exposure to malnutrition or infectious diseases during the early stages of our development are recognised to have a detrimental effect on health during adulthood, and for our offspring. As vulnerable members of a society, wholly dependent on the care of others, understanding the survival of infants has the potential to provide an accurate measure of a population’s ability to adapt to their particular environmental circumstances. Our questions are becoming ever more sophisticated as we broaden our focus away from issues of representation of children and mortality rates to questioning specific issues that surround a child’s identity, from infancy to adolescence, and the unique circumstances that influence their health and survival.



At the 2016 AAPA meeting with her new France Casting hoodie, my name tags, and the flesh-eating bacteria (necrotizing fasciitis) soft toy I was given from one of our PPA session organisers 🙂


To Achieve the Impossible: Research and study leave with children

Recently, there has been a study published by researchers at my own University on the experience of Research and Study Leave (RSL) or sabbatical for men and women. It found  that families are negatively affected to taking RSL with international travel due to childcare requirements and associated costs.

I am lucky that I am in a permanent position and at a University that supports RSL. I am also ‘lucky’ that I have recently sold my house. The small proceeds from this have allowed me to pay for my 2- and 11-year-olds airfares and childcare, which has thus far cost over NZ$15,000, plus continued payment of daycare fees to keep the enrollment of my 2-year-old at our University childcare.

What I am truly lucky for is the child-centered cultures that I work in and the amazing colleagues and students I have who accommodate them. The best place in accommodating my children has been in Thailand and Laos where friends and my local nanny have been absolutely fabulous. I have tried to plan this stint of fieldwork so as my 11-year-old is away at a time that includes her school break and to work around a visiting fellowship to the UK at the end of the year. However, this timing has also meant that it is HOT and hard for my kids. My 11-year-old misses her friends, but she has been extraordinarily self-motivated at doing her schoolwork each day (even in the weekends) working on her maths, reading and writing. I actually have to tell her to stop doing it at times so she gets out of the house!

Research highlights thus far have been working on the human remains from the Plain of Jars site in Laos excavated under the direction of Dougald O’Reilly and Louise Shewan. This site is under consideration for World Heritage Status and has gained archaeological interest from researchers around the world. I have also been continuing with my data collection from the infants and children from a Thai Iron Age site (see my post from early this year). This season I have found several very pre-term infants. This is of significance in indicating poor maternal health in this past population, and further supports our developing model of health change during this turbulent time of agricultural and social change.

IMG_3259Our visit to the Plain of Jars site 1.


IMG_2969A 24-26 week old foetus from the Iron Age site of Non Ban Jak, Northeast Thailand.


IMG_2978Our “super-nanny”.

The most difficult place we have been this year for accommodating children was the US for two major conferences. Childcare was US$200 a day plus extra expenses. Neither of the conferences provided childcare services, which I would have been very happy to pay for. Thank goodness for two local moms at the first conference who traveled to the store to buy us some groceries while we were stuck in a food desert! Despite the expense, both conferences have been extremely beneficial for my research. I have established new collaborations, been invited to visit universities, and they were invaluable for me to keep up-to-date with recent research developments in my field. I was also able to support two of my students who attended the conferences.

I’m happy that my RSL so far has been possible with my children. Without the ability for international travel I can’t do my research or attend major conferences. However, next time I will try to be more realistic about my plans with the kids. They are enjoying their time in Southeast Asia but the logistics and financial issues are a lot of pressure.

We are off to the UK in September until December for my fellowship to work with colleagues in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham. Another place with supportive colleagues! I’m looking forward to the next adventure!

IMG_3315The two-year-old helping me re-box some archeological human remains.

IMG_2971.jpgThe 11-year-old hiding in our bedroom for some quiet space to do her school work under the mosquito net.


Alien from the Atacama: What baby osteology can tell you

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”.

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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.

Recent Southeast Asian bioarchaeological research showcased

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.

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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