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.

Check out some new papers reflecting on the past 10 years of the study of childhood in the past

Take a look at the contents of Childhood in the Past – Volume 10.1 – 2017: Editorial – Ten Years of Childhood in the Past Eileen M. Murphy Invited paper SSCIP: The First Ten Years Sally Crawford Research papers Landscapes of Childhood: Places and Material Culture Margarita Sánchez Romero Child Bioarchaeology: Perspectives on the Past […]

via The 10th anniversary edition of Childhood in the Past is out now! — sscip

Is altruism dead in academia? Distinguish yourself by being kind

In the sometimes cut-throat environment of academia with limited funding and job prospects, it can sometimes feel like altruism may be lost forever. Academia can wear you down psychologically and physically, particularly so if you are an early or mid career researcher, and if you are a female and/or from a minority group.

There are always ways to support and encourage others in academia and in some instances even small acts of “giving” may really help those who are struggling. These things may be what you do and think about anyway, so congratulations! To others they may seem inconsequential, but I think that these can make all the difference to your peers and contribute in general to a happier, more collegial environment for everyone.

Here are a few ways that we can support each other:

  1. If you are writing something and know that there is a student or early career researcher who may be able to contribute their scholarship to the topic, ask them to contribute as an author. This will add to their CV and publication experience, and get their name out into the field. This may make them realise their work is valued while also contributing to the international research community.
  2. If you are invited to a conference and cannot attend, suggest inviting another scholar (in particular an Early Career researcher) who also fits their criteria. This may be invaluable to the participant’s CV and lead to other academic opportunities. Be mindful that there may be other issues with childcare and breastfeeding etc. that might hinder their attendance.
  3. Similarly, if you cannot complete a review of a paper, book, or grant etc., nominate an appropriate colleague to do this.
  4. If you are writing a grant or setting up a research project, see how you can work with an Early Career scholar, and get them involved from the start to make it truly collaborative. See how this may contribute to their other funding opportunities.
  5. Keep a note of new and existing grant and scholarship opportunities for students and other scholars in the field. I always pick up brochures for students and colleagues when I see them at conferences, and email out new opportunities when I see them online.
  6. Ask to nominate others for awards as appropriate and take the time to write the best references you can highlighting their positive attributes.
  7. Ask to nominate others for places on academic committees, and make places on committees for students and Early Career Researchers, and be mindful to make these more than just tokenistic positions.
  8. If you edit a journal or newsletter, make a space for a student and/or Early Career researcher on the Editorial Board, have a section for student papers, and provide incentives such as student publication awards.
  9. If you can see that there are issues with research methods and interpretations etc., talk with the researcher directly, rather than to others in the field.
  10. Look out for signs of mental illness in students and colleagues and offer to help by listening.
  11. Be kind to one another. “We’re all smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind” (@annegalloway)

What are your ideas to help your colleagues?

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.

Having babies as an academic archaeologist

Some people consider that having children while studying or before you have gained tenure is career suicide. I had my first baby while a PhD student and my second 9 years later after I had gained tenure. For me, while having my first baby was much more difficult financially, having a baby when I was younger was a lot easier in terms of my energy levels and perseverance, even with little sleep and other responsibilities.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a tough year or so finishing my PhD after having my first child. I used to joke that completing a PhD was like being pregnant and in labour – there is a lot of hard work to form your larger thesis (the gestation part) and at the end the harder you push the faster the agony would be over (active labour)!


After I was back from my 12 weeks leave with my second child I faced the daunting task of an unusually heavy convening and teaching load. I do acknowledge that I am relatively privileged that there are many people in the US and other countries who do not have access to this leave, and I had some flexibility with work arrangements when my daughter was very young. I found expressing and dealing with infant sicknesses an almost full-time job. A vivid memory that has stuck with me was writing a large grant application when staying in hospital with my daughter when she was 3 months old while suffering from respiration issues. There were other real disruptions, e.g., I  missed a major fellowship deadline when my baby was a newborn, which could have been a career changer for me. Although I was working long hours and being successful and productive there was a ‘dip’ in my research.

As I am a (bio)archaeologist, having children poses some real difficulties for the logistics of my work, but this also provides my children with many opportunities (see my earlier post on this).

Some universities have acknowledged that parenting and parental leave impacts upon research momentum and that parents needed additional support to help get that going again when they return to work. E.g., as part of the Athena SWAN Charter, Durham University have introduced a policy whereby staff returning from maternity/parental/adoption leave are eligible for a term of research and study leave.

There also seems to be an increase in recognition in archaeology that there are gender equity issues. Here are a hand-full of resources in archaeology that seek to encourage participation and improve the status of women in our field. Check them out!

Trowelblazers runs outreach activities and events with the aim of “encouraging participation of women and underrepresented groups in archaeological, geological, and palaeontological science.”

The Gender Equity in Archaeology Project “examines the relationship between gender, author, and editorship in conference presentations and publications as a lens to examine current disciplinary sociopolitics and the relative contributions of men and women to archaeological research.”

There are also committees that focus of gender equity in archaeology in societies. For example, the Society for American Archaeology has a Committee on the Status of Women in Archaeology which “seeks to understand the current status of women in the profession through the gathering of data and to improve the position of women in archaeology.”

There is also a resource here that lists some women’s academic organisations, including anthropology.


Check out this wonderful outreach on the study of childhood in the past

At the Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past, we want to share our passion and enthusiasm for this subject with professionals and the public alike. Therefore, we have been busy organising events that highlight the importance of children in the past. In October 2016, the Society was involved in the Big Biology […]

via Want to know more about the study of childhood in the past? Follow SSCIP’s outreach activities — sscip

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.

New comprehensive resource on childhood bioarchaeology now available

We have a just published a large annotated bibliography on the Bioarchaeology of Childhood with Oxford Bibliographies online. This will be useful to all bioarchaeology and human osteoarchaeology students, and academics for research and teaching. Please access this here

Halcrow, Siân E.; Ward, Stacey M. “Bioarchaeology of Childhood.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Childhood Studies. Ed. Heather Montgomery. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.



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.