The collection of papers in this special issue of Childhood in the Past edited by Francesca Fulminante showcase research on infancy and childhood with sophisticated theoretical and methodological approaches to this topic. This issue represents a significant contribution to understanding the role of children and childhood during the transition to urbanization in Europe through the lens of multiple approaches, including bioarchaeological, archaeological, cognitive developmental (palaeoanthropological), sociological and historical research on infants and children, using a variety of new analytical techniques. This issue moves chronologically from the consideration of cognitive development during prehistory to the nineteenth-century urban environment. Check it out!
Personal Reflections By Amanda Hoogestraat, Twitter @AmehAnthro
On my recent tour of museums in the UK, I saw small reminders of children in the exhibits featuring past societies. Children were obviously a part of every community, but are underrepresented in museum collections. There is a museum devoted to childhood in both London and Edinburgh, but perhaps other museums should consider adding more children’s items to their collections for a more balanced representation of life in the communities it displays.
For many of the museums that had childhood material culture, shoes or cradles were the only items on view.
Four out of the 55 museums that I visited had children’s skeletal remains on display; usually infants and mostly with an adult skeletons nearby. Rarely did I see older children.
However, it was the toys that interested me the most; to see how the cherished play items were very similar to those of today.
I also observed how visiting children interacted with the exhibits, especially at museums not designed specifically for them. Some of these museums had created play areas pertaining to a display nearby.
Surprisingly, the British Motor Museum was a place that had children’s programs and school tours.
I think everyone enjoys seeing items from a childhood different from our own lives or from our own childhoods. It reminds us that across time and location, children were an integral part of the society.
The intricate relationship between mother and infant health is becoming more acknowledged in archaeology, with the increase in reporting and publication of cases of maternal and foetal death. The fantastic Kristina Killgrove has recently written a story on a rare case on coffin-birth from Mediaeval Italy. Check it our here!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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.
Figure 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.
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.
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.
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.
Our visit to the Plain of Jars site 1.
A 24-26 week old foetus from the Iron Age site of Non Ban Jak, Northeast Thailand.
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!
The two-year-old helping me re-box some archeological human remains.
The 11-year-old hiding in our bedroom for some quiet space to do her school work under the mosquito net.
Numerous alien and conspiracy theories have been put forward in the past to explain archaeological finds. One such example that has gained significant media attention is the partially mummified human fetus given the name “Ata” after being found in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile in 2003. The alien theories and human growth disorder theories that have been put forward are based on the purported unusual skeletal and soft tissue morphology. In 2013, it was reported by geneticist Garry Nolan that the DNA analyses supports that the individual is human. However at this same time it was reported that Ralph Lachman (clinical pediatric radiologist) claimed the skeletal biology was not human-like, citing numerous observations, including “the high level of calcification observed in the legs suggested it was more likely a child between the ages of five and eight years old”.
Figure 1: Naturally mummified fetus from the Atacama Desert, Northern Chile.
Recently I was approached by a researcher, let’s call him Mr X, who was producing a report from his re-examination of the Atacama specimen. When Mr X asked my opinion to be used in his report he didn’t supply me with any primary data to base my analyses on, so my preliminary observations were based on photos I could find online. Prior to my correspondence with Mr X my colleague based in the UK was asked to comment on the specimen from an ancient DNA perspective. Although the draft report that Mr X emailed for my comments after I had given my preliminary observations concludes that this individual is most likely a human fetus, which I agree with, I was dismayed with a number of things.
Firstly, in this report draft, my colleague’s comments were taken out of context and severely criticized, and included in the report without consent. Perhaps this was because my colleague declined to be sucked into spending precious time and several thousand pounds (things that are not plentiful for scientists these days!) on aDNA analyses of the individual. I should note that my colleague was not worried about Mr X’s criticism of him, but it raised alarm bells for me.
The second issue, and one that I want to discuss here is the lack of proper osteological analyses and reporting, which reminded me somewhat of Dr Kristina Killgrove’s Who Needs an Osteologist installments. Mr X asked me to comment on Mr Z’s (human anatomist and embryologist) interpretations of his findings before writing the report. Mr X advised me to keep the report confidential, as this was being prepared for the private ‘owner’ of the remains based in Spain. The ownership of archaeological remains is problematic in itself. While Mr X had perfectly valid interpretations, a human osteologist’s input is needed for valid scientific analyses of human bone, methodological description and interpretations of the findings. I saw no explanation of age estimation methods, no reference to any human osteological developmental texts, and no inclusion of any studies of mummified soft tissues. As well as bad reporting, Mr X did not acknowledge my input into his findings.
Although I am not going to release the contents of the report, I want to share with you some of my communications with Mr X. Here are some of my explanations of previous biological ‘anomalies’ argued to exist in the Atacama specimen.
1st ‘anomaly’: The 11th and 12th pair of ribs seem to be missing in the radiographs.
My response: The ribs may not be visible in a radiograph as the 11th and 12th ribs are smaller ‘floating’ ribs in that they do not articulate anteriorly at the sternum, are not as robust, and are shorter that the other ribs. There is little information about the formation of ribs in-utero and the timing of the primary centres of ossification (where they first start forming as bone). Initial formation of the 5th-8th ribs start at about 8th-9th weeks in-utero (Scheuer and Black 2000: 238). Scheuer and Black (2000: 238) also state that “by the eleventh and twelfth weeks of intra-uterine life, each rib (often with the exception of the twelfth)”, which implies that the lower ribs are later forming, so may not be as visible in a radiograph.
2nd ‘anomaly’: The seemingly advanced stage of epyphiseal union of the femur, suggesting an age of 5-10 years.
[epiphyseal fusion refers to when the shaft of the bone and the extremity fuse together when the bone stops growing in length]
My response: The statement of the advance stage of epiphyseal fusion is incorrect. If there was fusion/union at the distal femur (which I am assuming they are talking about) this would suggest an adolescent, and thus older than 5-10 years. Regardless of this error in age estimation from epiphyseal fusion methods, I do not see evidence for union on the radiograph online – where is the ‘density’ that they are referring to? There is no ossification of the epiphyses (the unfused extremities of the femora or tibiae) to suggest that fusion of the diaphyses (shaft) and the epiphyses (extremity) would be possible. These bones and the development of these bones all look normal from my observations of the photos and radiographs online.
3rd ‘anomaly’: The epiphyseal plate x-ray density test for age determination suggested an age of 6-8 years old.
My response: This type of age estimation is problematic, and I don’t know any bioarchaeologist or forensic anthropologist who uses the method described. This can’t be applied to mummified remains if it relies on water density.
This is no alien. This was the result of a mother losing her baby early during her pregnancy in the past in South America.
Figure 2: My archaeologist colleague on our trip to an archaeological site in Arica region, Atacama desert, Chile.
Also see my post on human fetuses in the past here.