‘Freaks’ as museum exhibits: the case of the Boy of Bengal

Throughout history we have been obsessed with the ‘other’, the ‘weird’ and the wonderful. This is epitomised in the history of ‘freak shows’, which date back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century. From this time people with unusual physical characteristics often became objects of public curiosity and were shown throughout Europe and beyond. Some of the people shown had growth syndromes (e.g. dwarfism and gigantism), growth defects (e.g. ectrodactyly, or ‘split hand / ‘cleft handand microcephaly), albinism, and the very rare syndrome of hypertrichosis, sometimes called “werewolf syndrome”, which results in excessive hair on the face and body.

One ‘object of curiosity’ is the “Boy of Bengal” whose heads remain on display at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of London. He was born in rural Bengal in the late 18th century. His parents exhibited him publically around India, and in private gatherings. Unfortunately the boy died at the age of four from a cobra bite.

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During the 18th and 19th centuries there was an increase in medical interest in these conditions, which resulted in these people being studied, and sometimes displayed in medical forums. These people often continued to be objectified after their death through the preservation of their bodies, or parts of their bodies, in museums and clinical settings.

The boy’s grave was robbed and body dissected by as salt agent from the East India Company, and his skull was given to the the British surgeon Everard Home who had expressed interest in his condition.

This condition is now known as Craniopagus parasiticus, which is a form of parasitic twins. Parasitic twins form when a fertilised egg does not split properly, and one embryo maintains dominant development at the expense of its twin. This process is the same as the development of conjoined twins but there is an underdevelopment of one of the twins.

It could be argued that today there is still a type of grotesque fascination of ‘oddities’, evidenced with the interest that people have with these types of historic museum items such as the Boy of Bengal. We also see a continuation of the intense interest in people with unusual physical conditions today, prime examples include conjoined twins making world news and being the subjects in reality TV shows.

The notorious ‘baby murderer’ from New Zealand

One of the most high profile cases of infanticide was committed by Minnie Dean in the late 19th century, also gaining infamy as the only woman in New Zealand to receive the death penalty for her crimes. During my childhood I heard many different stories of her hideous acts, made even more pertinent given that I grew up in the same small Southland town that these crimes were committed 100 years earlier. The stories revolved around how she murdered infants by piercing their fontanelles (‘soft-spots’ on the top of their heads) with hairpins, concealed them in hat boxes, and disposed of them in rivers. Kids in the playground at our local school used to taunt others by saying, “watch out or Minnie Dean will get you!”

Minnie Dean (1844-1895) was a ‘baby-farmer’ who cared for infants and children in an informal adoption relationship in exchange for money. This type of work was attractive to lower income women in New Zealand at the time, and in other parts of the British Empire. Those she took into care were largely illegitimate children.

Minnie and her husband Charles had financial issues, with records of filing for bankruptcy. After a fire destroyed their home they lived in a very small twenty-two foot by twelve foot house. At any one time there could be up to nine children under the age of three in her care.

In 1889 a six-month-old infant died in her care, and two years later a six-week-old baby died. The inquest from the six-week-old-baby concluded that the death was from natural causes and the other children at her house at the time were well cared for but that their living conditions were inadequate. In an era of high infant mortality (about 100 per 1000 births in NZ), it isn’t surprising that that some of the children would die from illness.

Minnie started to gain even more police interest when it was found that she had been looking for more children to care, as well as attempting, unsuccessfully, to take out life insurance policies on some of the babies.

In 1892 the police took into their care a three-week-old who Dean had adopted from a single mother for £25. The baby was reported to be in a malnourished state.

Then in 1895 Minnie was seen boarding a train carrying a young baby and a hatbox. However, on the return trip she was reported to only have the hatbox. She was subsequently arrested and police searched her property and found the bodies of two babies, later identified as Eva Hornsby and Dorothy Carter, and the skeleton of an older boy (whom Dean later claimed had drowned). An inquest found that Dorothy Carter had died from an overdose of opiate laudanum, commonly used to calm babies at the time.

Before her death by hanging in August 1895, Dean wrote her own account of her life. In total, apart from her adopted children, she claimed to have cared for twenty-six children. Of these, five were found in good health after her arrest (figure below, and Esther Wallis, one of her adopted children), six had died in her care, and one had been given back to her parents. This leaves 14 children unaccounted for.

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There was, understandably, intense public interest around Minnie Dean’s case. Around the time of her convictions macabre dolls in miniature hat boxes were said to have been sold as souvenirs outside the Invercargill courtroom where Dean was tried.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 4.30.47 PM‘Minnie Dean dolls’, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/minnie-dean-dolls, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 2-Oct-2014

Later, Minnie Dean’s own defence lawyer Alfred Hanlon wrote:

Sober, home-loving folk from end to end of the country shuddered … when the grim and ghastly story of Minnie Dean’s infamy was narrated by the prosecution. Imagine a being with the name and appearance of a woman boldly using a public railway train for the destruction of her helpless victims, sitting serene and unperturbed in a carriage with one tiny corpse in a tin box at her feet and another enshrouded in a shawl and secured by travelling straps in the luggage rack at her head.

 

After her conviction the New Zealand government made the process of foster parenting more regulated to stop tragedies like this happening again.

In 1994 Historian Lynley Hood published a book, Minnie Dean: Her Life and Crimes, which raises some questions surrounding the fairness of her trial and the facts in the case. Was she a victim of hypocrisy of Victorian society doing the dirty work of caring for unwanted and illegitimate children? One will never truly know, but her name remains part of New Zealand history and grisly folklore today.

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Why do we have baby teeth?

Baby teeth, also known as milk teeth or deciduous teeth, start forming in the jaws of a baby in utero with the front teeth almost fully formed (apart from the roots) by the time of birth. Baby teeth erupt from about 6 months starting with the front teeth and are usually all present by the age of two and a half years. The first permanent grinding tooth (molar) erupts just behind the last baby molar. Then the front baby teeth get slowly replaced with permanent teeth and by about 12 years of age all the permanent teeth are erupted in the mouth and by adulthood most people have their 3rd molars (“wisdom teeth”).

The jaws of infants and children are far too small to accommodate the larger permanent teeth. Baby teeth are essential for the development of the mouth. They maintain the jaw length, and provide guides for the eruption pathway and therefore proper placement of permanent teeth.

Humans aren’t the only species who have two sets of teeth, but not all animals who have teeth have two sets. Some animals, such as hamsters and moles, only have one set of teeth in their lifetime. Most other vertebrates such as reptiles and fishes have the ability to replace their teeth over and over again. The tooth sizes are very similar and non-specialsed.

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So, really, the question is why do we only have one set of baby teeth and permanent teeth!

Mammals have very specialised sets of teeth that need to fit together properly to work well. Each tooth has a specific function and they need to work together as a unit, which makes chewing much more efficient for the purposes of getting nutrients from food. If they are constantly being shed and replaced throughout life the precision matching of shape and size of neighbouring teeth that enable that efficient chewing is lost.

But there is a trade off with developing such specialised teeth – it takes more energy to make them, so we are left with one set of teeth during development and one throughout our whole adulthood.

 

First sighting of a wild newborn chimpanzee taken from mother and cannibalised.

The first ever witnessed case of a newborn wild chimpanzee being taken from the mother and subsequently eaten was published by researchers from Japan this week in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The authors explain that this most likely occurred because the pregnant chimpanzee did not go on “maternity leave”, a period near the time of birth that the mother chimpanzee hides and gives birth alone.

Just a matter of seconds after the mother, Devota, gave birth and before she could touch her newborn, an adult male chimpanzee, Darwin, picked up the infant and took it into the bush. The researchers therefore couldn’t confirm if it was a live or still birth or the sex of the infant. Darwin and other members of the group were subsequently seen eating the newborn. At the time of the incident in 2014, there were about 60 members in the group, with 20 adult females and 10 adult males.

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 11.55.38 PM.pngPhoto of Darwin with the infant that was subsequently cannibalised (Nishie and Nakamura 2018).

There have been 45 sightings of infanticide in wild chimpanzee groups in six different populations, but never around the time of birth. This incident occurred in group “M” from the Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania, which have been studied since 1968. The authors found clear evidence for maternity leave from data from their daily attendance records between 1990 and 2010 with a total of 94 births to 36 females.

Infanticide perpetrated by males has been observed in many primate species and is usually explained as being a male reproductive strategy, whereby males increase their chance of fathering an infant by killing unrelated infants, and results in the mothers becoming fertile again sooner after birth.

The authors propose explanations for why Devota gave birth without “maternity leave”: 1) the baby was preterm and was therefore “not expected”; 2) it was her first pregnancy and had not learned the behaviour of “maternity leave”; and 3) she felt safe in the group as she may have copulated with a number of males around the time of conception of the infant.

Bringing Breastfeeding from the Past into the Present – by guest blogger Dr. Charlotte King

Bringing Breastfeeding from the Past into the Present – some recent coverage from our chapter published in this awesome new book!

Anthrolactology

This month, Anthrolactology welcomes Dr. Charlotte King. Dr. King is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Otago, New Zealand.  Her research focusses on the emergence of agricultural societies and the way in which this transition has shaped human culture and biology. She uses chemical analysis of human tissues to understand diet and human mobility in the past, as well as processes in the burial environment which might have impacted upon bone composition.

The importance of infant-feeding practices in modern societies has long been noted by clinical professionals and anthropologists, but people who study the human past (like bioarchaeologists) are also interested in breastfeeding and weaning. The knock-on effects of changes to breastfeeding and weaning practices for maternal and infant health, and mortality rates mean that they can have important implications for societies. They can contribute to population growth or increases in infant and maternal mortality. In a sense…

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

A version of this story was originally published here.

 

 

 

‘Oh baby’ – new things to come for The Bioarchaeology of Childhood

2017 was a busy year for me, but I am excited that this blog is continuing to receive good readership and positive feedback. This year I have resolved to communicate new research in the broader biological anthropology field to a wider audience through more frequent posts and new content.

So why should we care about babies and kids in anthropology?

The start of life is the most critical time for humans. From the susceptible prenatal period, the hazards of childbirth, to seemingly harmless bugs that can’t be fought off by infants’ underdeveloped immune systems; their lives are fragile.

Although human babies are born in an extreme state of helplessness compared with all other primates, through millions of years of evolution there has been a development of ways to support infants and children during this critical time. Consider, for instance, the miraculous rooting reflex to find their mother’s nipple in an otherwise utterly helpless newborn, the interaction of babies’ saliva and breastmilk to fight germs, and the development of advanced social cooperative care for the young.

Anthropological reconstructions of the world were once devoid of children altogether, in line with social perception at the time that children should be seen and not heard. What we now know is that children are integral to understanding most facets of human life today and in the past. For example, early illnesses are now known to have later-life health consequences not only within our own lifetimes, but also for our children and grandchildren. Also, just as the World Health Organisation uses child mortality and growth as sensitive measures of population wellbeing, this can give us invaluable insights into living conditions in past communities. Past child mortuary practices are also central to unlocking the social identity of the young and those related to them, and therefore the wider social tapestry.

This blog will communicate the latest childhood biological anthropology, archaeology, and forensic anthropology research to a wide general audience. Future posts will share stories on coffin birth, how women’s pelvic bones adapt during their lifetime to aid in reproduction, midwifery in our hominin past, past childcare practices, and much more.

Here are three of the most read pieces from 2017:

Why were so many babies murdered in the past?

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

Having babies as an academic archaeologist

Thank you for your support and all the best for 2018!

 

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This method in sex determination may revolutionise what we know about the past

We are often hindered in archaeology and forensic anthropology as we cannot safely determine sex in infants and children using non-ancient DNA (aDNA) techniques, leaving much of our understanding about a myriad of aspects of gender and health untouched. The methods we have for infant and child sex estimation that use size and shape of the skeletal remains are not sensitive enough to assess sex differences until after puberty. Using ancient DNA analysis to determine sex is also problematic due to preservation and contamination issues, as well as its destructive and costly nature. Although there have been attempts of aDNA sex determination of purported infanticide victims from Romano-British sites, they have been severely limited to sampling very small proportions of the infants at the sites.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has presented an exciting method that can determine the sex of human remains more easily and with minimal destruction of precious archaeological samples. By using tiny samples through a process of surface acid etching of tooth enamel they have shown that they can identify sex chromosome-linked isoforms (proteins that have a similar but not identical amino acid sequences) of amelogenin, an enamel-forming protein, by a form of specialised mass spectrometry. A mass spectrum, in simple terms, measures the masses and therefore the chemical characteristics of a sample.

Tooth enamel is the hardest tissue in the human body due to its high mineral content and is therefore best preserved in the burial environment. This study used archaeological samples from the UK spanning from over 5,000 years ago until the 19th century, and found that in all cases the sex determined using this new method agreed with the assignment of sex by either coffin plates or other osteological techniques.

This study is a game changer for archaeology and forensics, which will allow many avenues for research that have been hitherto untouched, and will be of particular value in the burgeoning field of the study of children in the past. With knowledge of sex we will be able to explore, for the first time, gender-based practices in care, infanticide, diet, as well as start to tease apart the nuances of differences in health and growth between male and female infants and children in archaeological samples.

 

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