Skull trauma in children indicates violent pre-Hispanic Canary Island societies

There is a romanticised view that pre-Hispanic societies from the Canary Islands lived in a ‘paradise on earth’ without violence and conflict. However, recent work by anthropologists has shown that there is evidence for intentional trauma in adults from pre-Hispanic sites suggesting inter-personal violence. A recently published paper has found that the young were not spared this violence, with a high number of children from the island of Gran Canaria with skull trauma. This is significant as there is generally less evidence for violence in children compared with adults from archaeological contexts.

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Figure 1: A seven year old child from Guayadeque, Gran Canaria, with blunt force trauma occurring around the time of death (from Velasco-Vázquez et al. 2018).


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Figure 2. Areas of the skull that showed traumatic injury (from Velasco-Vázquez et al 2018).

The infants and children analysed in this research are from sites that cover an expansive part of the pre-Hispanic occupation of Gran Canaria from the 6th to 15th century CE. The authors studied a total of 65 infants and children looking to identify any sharp force trauma, puncture injuries, and blunt force trauma on the skull. Fourteen children suffered from craniofacial injuries, all of which were blunt force trauma, and two of these children have evidence that this trauma resulted in their death (e.g. Figure 1). Most of the skeletal trauma occurred on the face or forehead, a similar pattern observed in adult studies of trauma in these populations (Figure 2).

Children could have been engaged as actors in this violence as well as the victims. Although early scholars painted the Canary Islands as a peaceful and bountiful paradise, ignoring  evidence for social inequality and conflict, there is archaeological evidence for marked social hierarchy and resource depletion in this insular community, which likely led to significant social unrest.

Uncovering childhood in museums

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.

Egyptian ‘hawk’ mummy is a human foetus with a fatal birth defect

Recently researchers have made an unexpected discovery of a mummified foetus while CT scanning a 2300-year-old mummy known as Ta-Kush currently held at the Maidstone Museum in Kent. This coffin was labelled, “A mummified hawk with linen and cartonnage, Ptolemaic period (323 BC – 30 BC).”

Micro-CT scan shows the mummified stillborn human baby. Image: Maidstone Museum UK/Nikon Metrology UK

The high resolution CT scan results have recently been presented at the Extraordinary World Congress on Mummy Studies in the Canary Islands last month. The authors argue that the foetus was about 23-28 weeks gestation and had anencephaly as shown by underdeveloped skull bones.

To me, this begs the question as to whether the several other Egyptian ‘hawk’ mummies curated around the world are actually tiny babies. Further investigation of this baby and others will shed light on the social responses of grief and loss of those born too young to survive.

Watch here on YouTube Mummy ‘bird’ mystery

The coffin. Image: Western University






‘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.



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:, (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.


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.


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.


Halcrow Anne Marie Snoddy Custom

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.




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.

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.