A recent story of a 4,800-year-old ‘mother’ cradling a baby has been pulling at the heart strings of people worldwide with sensationalist headlines such as “Mother’s enduring love for baby revealed as 5000-year-old fossil found” and “Fossil of 5000-year-old mother cradling baby found in Taiwan”. But is this story everything it’s really cracked up to be?
An archeological team working at a Neolithic site near the city of Taichung since 2014 has unearthed “48 sets of remains”, presumably the number of individual graves, representing the earliest burial site in Taiwan. One of these burials has been described as a mother and baby. However, the news accounts provide little information as to why the researchers believe this to be the case, apart from the placement of the baby with the adult female and the turning of her head to be “looking at her baby” (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The 4800-year-old “mother and baby” found in Taiwan (source: Reuters)
It is likely that if a female and newborn baby is found in a burial context that they died during childbirth (see my earlier post on fetuses in archaeology). Childbirth is the most critical time for both a mother and baby. This has even led some archaeologists to argue that higher mortality rates of young adult females compared with males represent the hazards of childbirth in the past.
The baby has been described as a foot and a half (about 46 cms), which is about the size of a newborn baby. However, looking at the photos and the videos from the news stories the baby looks too big to be a newborn. The only bones present seem to be from the waist-up. Looking at the relative size of the hands of the archaeologist cleaning the bones and the upper body of the baby (Figure 2), it may be that the size cited is for the upper body, supporting that the infant is older than a newborn. It is difficult to see the cranial bones to assess their development to infer an age-at-death. The cranial bones look thicker than a newborn, but it is unclear as it appears there is some concreted soil adhering to the surface of the bones. Given that this infant seems older than a newborn it is unlikely that they were mother and child.
Figure 2: Archaeologist cleaning the ‘mother-baby’ burial (photo: Reuters video).
In a small Neolithic community there may have been some kind of relationship between the adult female and the infant, or they may have only been buried together because their deaths coincided. Using a cross cultural example, in the Anglican burial tradition babies were interred with non-maternal women in instances of coinciding death (Roberts and Cox 2003: 253).
To assess if there is a biological relationship between this purported mother-baby pair, ancient DNA analyses could be undertaken, but this is difficult with preservation issues in tropical contexts. We should also keep in mind that a mother-child relationship is not always biological.
The fact that the adult female had her head turned to her left may be the result of the burial environment, as some bones can shift in open spaces such as coffins, or from the weight of soil on the bones. Further research looking at the positions of the bone could give more insight on the mode of burial.
We will have to await the scientific presentation of the findings from this site to evaluate the likelihood for this purported mother and baby.
New research using novel microscopic investigation of bacterial bioerosion of archaeological bone has shown that you can differentiate between stillborn and post-newborn babies. This was most exciting to me as offering a means to contribute to the debate of the interpretation of infanticide in the past, through an investigation of time of death.
Bioerosion is the removal of mineralised substrate through the action of organisms, and has been found to be the most common form of microbial attack of archaeological bone (Figure 1). The author of this new research, Tom Booth from the Natural History Museum, notes that although it was once believed that soil bacteria caused most of this bioerosion in bone, it is the gut microbia that is responsible for corpse putrification that causes this process. Based on the findings that it is the bacteria inside the body that produces this bioerosion, the author thought that this could be useful for assessing different mortuary treatments of the body.
Figure 1: Transmitted light micrograph of a human fresh bone transverse femoral thin section (top) demonstrating perfect microstructural preservation and a typical archaeological femoral section (bottom) where the internal microstructure has been extensively altered by bacteria (from Booth et al., 2015).
To investigate if there is any relationship between bacterial bone bioerosion and funerary treatment, Booth undertook a microscopic analysis of human bones from European prehistoric (4000 B.C. – A.D. 43) and British historical (A.D. 43 – present day) sites. These two assemblages were used as they have been found to have different funerary practices, with the historic period sites practicing burial soon after death, whereas the prehistoric sites have more variable mortuary practices, sometimes including postmortem modification. E.g. Booth and colleagues’ work that found evidence for mummification in Bronze Age Britain using this microscopic method has recently received media attention.
This research shows that irrespective of burial environment, including antiquity or soil type, there was immaculate histological preservation of almost half of the neonatal samples. This is interpreted as the result of sterility of stillborn infant intestinal tracts resulting in the bones being unaffected by the process of bacterial tunneling. In addition, most (12/15) of the unbioeroded newborn samples are from historical cemeteries where most of the other samples had been extensively bioeroded. A previous experimental study by White and Booth using pigs found that bone from stillborn neonatal carcasses had immaculate histological preservation due to the intrinsic sterility of newborn infant intestinal tracts.
Booth found that the soil type had no relationship with bacterial bioerosion. There was evidence for variation in bacterial bioerosion among the later prehistoric assemblages argued to be “consistent with the knowledge that these individuals were subject to variable early post mortem treatment that exposed the bones to diverse levels of bacterial attack.” Bacterial bioerosion in the historical assemblage was high, consistent with that expected within bones of intact bodies that had been interred soon after death.
The use of this novel method to differentiate stillborn vs post-newborn infants can contribute to extending our knowledge of the cause of death during the most crucial time for mother and child in the past, and may also have useful applications for the study of cultural beliefs around stillbirth and post-neonatal death.
Booth, T. J., A. T. Chamberlain and M. P. Pearson (2015). “Mummification in Bronze Age Britain.” Antiquity 89(347): 1155-1173.
The concept of fetuses in archeology probably brings to mind poignant images of the tiny bones of a baby in the pelvic cavity of a female adult skeleton, although finds such as these are actually rather rare. In practice, many bioarchaeologists apply the description of ‘fetus’ to babies from bioarchaeological samples identified as younger than 37 weeks gestational age (e.g. Halcrow et al. 2008; Lewis and Gowland 2007; Mays 2003; Owsley and Jantz 1985). However, there are problems associated with estimation of age-at-death of these babies, who may indeed be fetuses, but also may be premature births, or small-for-gestational age full-term births. If the medical definition of a fetus as an unborn baby is applied (Forfar et al. 2003; Halcrow and Tayles 2008; Lewis and Gowland 2007; Scheuer and Black 2000), the in-utero skeletons would seem to represent the only finds in archaeology that can be confidently identified as fetuses. However, even an apparent in-utero fetus may in fact have been a neonate mortality, illustrating the care with which research in this field needs to be completed.
Generally little bioarchaeological research considers fetuses. For example, some growth studies and demographic analyses do not include preterm infants because of lack of comparative fetal bone size data (e.g. Johnston 1961). Also, the attention afforded to purported evidence of infanticide, based primarily on the reported high number of perinates in some skeletal assemblages (see my previous blog story on this), has deflected interest away from the contributions that fetuses can make to understanding bioarchaeological questions, including maternal health and disease and social organization from mortuary ritual analyses (Bonsall 2013; Faerman et al. 1998; Gilmore and Halcrow 2014; Mays and Eyers 2011; Mays 1993; Mays and Faerman 2001; Smith and Kahila 1992).
It is believed that approximately 3 in 10 pregnancies are spontaneously aborted, with the majority of these occurring in the first trimester, most being the result of genetic abnormalities (Fisher 1951). First trimester fetuses are very unlikely to be recovered in the bioarchaeological context. Bone development does not start until approximately six–eight weeks gestational age, and any bone formation prior to the second trimester would be unlikely to be preserved because of the low level of mineralization, and/or would be extremely difficult to identify in an archaeological context. The only first trimester fetus reported from an archaeological context is from the Libben sample, Ohio, a Late Woodlands site occupied 8th-11th century AD (White 2000: 20, see figure 1). There are published instances of preserved fetal individuals from the second trimester, e.g. the well-preserved fetus of 20 weeks gestational age from the Kellis 2 site, Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt (Wheeler 2012: 223). Owsley and Jantz (1985) have found three fetuses younger than 28 weeks gestation at Arikara sites in South Dakota. Hillson (2009) has also reported the findings of fetuses as young as 24 gestational weeks from a large Classical period infant cemetery at Kylindra on Astypalaia, in Greece.
Figure 1. Fetal skeletal material from the prehistoric Libben site, the smallest burial ever recorded (from White et al. 2011: 329). The long bones measure less than 2 cms.
Types of fetus burials
Differentiating burial types has the potential to contribute to research on maternal health, and the cause of death for the mother and child in the past. For example, a premature birth is more likely to indicate poor health and/or nutritional status of a woman, compared with a baby who died around full-term from obstructed labor. Distinguishing the type of fetal death and burial, whether the baby was full-term, or a pre-term or small-for gestational age baby, in conjunction with evidence of stress and diet and of both the mother and baby may give insights into overall health in past populations (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Infant jar burials from the Iron Age site of Noen U-Loke, NE Thailand. Left: full-term infant, approximately 40 gestational weeks (burial 100); right: pre-term infant, or ‘fetus’, approximately 30 gestational weeks (burial 89). (Photograph courtesy of C.F.W. Higham)
If the skeletal remains of a baby are found crouched in a fetal position within the pelvic cavity of an adult female, the mother likely died while the fetus was in-utero, before or during labor. The pregnant woman may therefore have died due to pregnancy or labor complications (Lewis 2007: 34). There is very little evidence for in-utero fetuses in the bioarchaeological context. Approximately 20 cases of pregnant or laboring females (i.e., interred with fetal remains in-situ) have been published in the archaeological literature, being argued to represent complications from childbirth (e.g. Ashworth et al. 1976; Cruz and Codinha 2010; Hawkes and Wells 1975; Högberg et al. 1987; Smith and Wood-Jones 1910, in Lewis 2007; Lieverse et al. 2015; Malgosa et al. 2004; O’Donovan and Geber 2010; Owsley and Bradtmiller 1983; Persson and Persson 1984; Pounder et al. 1983; Rascon Perez et al. 2007; Sjovold et al. 1974; Roberts and Cox 2003; Wells 1978).
The dearth of literature on in-utero fetuses in bioarchaeology may not be due to absence of evidence, but rather from the small bones being missed or misidentified during excavation, or reported only in the grey literature. There are numerous accounts of fetuses being misidentified as animal bones during excavation (e.g. Ingvarsson-Sundström 2003). For example, Roberts and Cox (2003) have reported at least 24 unpublished cases of fetuses from British excavations. There are further instances of fetal bones being found co-mingled with adult burials post-excavation, which may represent a baby in-utero, or a possible mother and baby post-birth burial (S. Clough, pers. comm.).
Bioarchaeologists have reported on cases of purported obstructed labor causing maternal and fetal perinatal death based on positioning of the fetus in the pelvic cavity or the finding of preterm mummified remains in-utero (Arriaza et al. 1988; Ashworth et al. 1976; Lieverse et al. 2015; Luibel 1981; Malgosa et al. 2004; Wells 1975).
If a perinate is found buried alongside an adult, with the same head orientation, then the infant has been buried post-birth, whether naturally or by caesarian section (Lewis 2007: 34) (Figure 3). In some contexts it is very common for newborns to be placed on the chest of adult women (presumably their mother) (Standen et al. 2014). To identify post-birth ‘fetuses’ archaeologically, if the majority of the infant remains are in the pelvic cavity of the adult, yet the legs are extended and/or the cranium lies among the ribcage, then the baby may have been delivered and then placed on top of the mother’s (or other adult’s) torso during burial (Lewis 2007: 34). It is argued that as both mother and baby bodies’ skeletonize, the baby’s bones can become settled among the mother’s ribs and vertebrae. This is important to note as these neonates may be mistaken for breech, obstructed labors in the archaeological context (e.g. Willis and Oxenham 2013). Willis and Oxenham (2013) describe an ‘in-utero breech’ presentation of a 38 gestational week fetus from Neolithic Southern Viet Nam. They describe the cranium as “below the mother’s right lower ribs” (it is not clear if they mean inside the abdominal/thoracic cavity or inferior to the right lower ribs) and the postcranial skeleton as “extended down toward the mother’s pelvis” with the left femur “positioned within the mother’s pelvic cavity and a tibia … positioned beside [lateral] the lesser trochanter of the mother’s right femur.” They also state the “right pars lateralis [part of the base of the occipital bone of the cranium] was concreted to the anterosuperior portion of the shaft of the 10th right rib of the mother, near the sternal end.” Given this partially extended (non-fetal) positioning and the part of the cranial base being found anterior to the rib cage), it could be possible that the baby was not in the abdominal cavity, but placed on top of the mother’s torso after birth.
Figure 3. Full-term neonate (burial 48) buried alongside an adult female (burial 47) from Khok Phanom Di (photograph courtesy of C.F.W. Higham). This could possibly represent a perinate and mother who died from complications during or following childbirth.
Ancient DNA analyses may be used to assess the relationship of the adult and fetal burials where the fetus has been placed on the purported mother, or the archaeological context is unclear. Lewis (2007: 35) has argued that this is important to distinguish these relationships, as in some contexts, e.g. in the Anglican burial tradition, babies were interred with non-maternal women in instances of coinciding death (Roberts and Cox 2003: 253).
Multiple fetal pregnancies and births
There have been two reported instances of twin fetuses in-utero in the bioarchaeological literature (Lieverse et al. 2015; Owsley and Bradtmiller 1983), with others found in a post-birth context. There has been a recent increase in the interest in multiple births in bioarchaeology, including an investigation of social identity and concepts of personhood through the investigation of mortuary treatment (e.g. Einwögerer et al. 2006; Halcrow et al. 2012). Human twins are rare, with approximately one occurrence for every 100 births (Ball and Hill 1996). However, they appear in the literature more commonly than expected, compared with singleton fetuses (e.g. Black 1967; Chamberlain 2001; Crespo et al. 2011; Einwögerer et al. 2006; Flohr 2014; Halcrow et al. 2012; Lieverse et al. 2015; Owsley and Bradtmiller 1983). This is probably because they are seen as more significant by the archaeologist.
An example of a possible twin burial was found in an Upper Paleolithic site of Krems-Wachtberg, Austria (Einwögerer et al. 2006). The infants from this double burial were identified as twins from their identical age (as estimated from their dentition), same femora size and their simultaneous interment (both estimated at full-term age at death). Interestingly the bodies lay under a mammoth scapula and a part of a tusk and were associated with 30 ivory beads. Einwögerer et al. (2006) suggest, based on this mortuary evidence, that these newborns were an important part of their community. Another case of a twin burial is from the mid fourth-century site of Olèrdola in Barcelona, Spain (Crespo et al. 2011). The two newborns were found at the same stratigraphic level with their lower limbs entwined, indicating that they were buried simultaneously. We (Halcrow et al. 2012) havev also presented an extremely rare finding of at least two and possibly four twin burials from a 4,000-3,000 year old BP Southeast Thailand site, offering a methodological approach for the identification of archaeological twin (or other multiple birth) burials and a social theoretical framework to interpret these in the past.
Post-mortem birth (‘coffin-birth’)
Post-mortem birth or ‘coffin-birth’ refers to the occurrence of fetuses that were in-utero when the mother died and were expelled after burial (O’Donovan and Geber 2010) (Figure 4). This is also talked about by Katy Meyers Emery in her blog story on coffin birth in her blog Bones Don’t Lie. Post-mortem birth by fetal extrusion has been documented in rare forensic cases from the build up of gas within the abdominal cavity resulting in the emission of the fetus (Lasso et al. 2009; Schultz et al. 2005). Lewis (2007: 34-37, 91) and O’Donovan et al. (2009) argue that if fetal remains are complete and in a position inferior to and in-line with the pelvis outlet, with the head oriented in the opposite direction to the mother, then there is the possibility of coffin birth (Figure 3). If they lie within the pelvic outlet, this means that there was partial extrusion during decomposition (Hawkes and Wells 1972). However, partial extrusion could also be the result of an obstructed labor of a baby in the breech position, but this would likely result in extrusion of the lower limbs. Sayer and Dickenson (2015) argue that postmortem fetal extrusion is implausible under some burial conditions and with that decomposition of the baby in-utero would mean that it isn’t likely to be birthed from an undilated cervical canal. This, however, assumes that there was no dilation at the time of death of the mother.
Figure 4. Potential coffin birth (from Appleby et al. 2014)
The investigation of mortuary treatment of pregnant women may give us information on social identity related to childbearing and fetuses themselves. For example the discovery of a 34-36 week old fetus cremated with the ca. 850 B.C. “Rich Athenian Lady” led to a recognition that her grave wealth may have been related to her dying while pregnant or during childbirth, rather than primarily her social status (Liston and Papadopoulos 2004).
Research of the archaeology of grief is starting to consider community members’ responses to infant and fetal death (e.g. Cannon and Cook 2015; Murphy 2011). The purported marginalization of fetuses along with infants in the archaeological record, including location and simplified mortuary treatment has led some scholars to interpret that they were of little concern beyond immediate family members (Cannon and Cook 2015). Considering literature on intense grief after miscarriage and infant death starts to challenge the notion that their loss was of little consequence (Murphy 2011).
NB: Part of this story is from the chapter:
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A cursory look through the bioarchaeological literature for explanations of infant death in the past may leave you with a view that infants were being purposefully killed and buried in community cemeteries or simply tossed away in high numbers (e.g. Mays 1993, Mays and Eyers, 2011, Smith and Kahila, 1992).
But what is the likelihood that these accounts are accurate? Here I want to take an analytical look at the bioarchaeological evidence and arguments for infanticide. Some of my views on childhood in the past have been criticised for being clouded by my status as a mother within a ‘Western’ culture. Sometimes I feel that my interpretations are dismissed and put down to my ‘personal’, ‘irrational’, ‘hyper-emotional’, ‘ethnocentric’ thoughts on infancy. One example of this type of experience was at a conference when a senior academic after viewing my poster ‘mansplained’, “you must realise that childhood wasn’t a rosy experience like it is now where you come from. They weren’t wrapped up in cotton wool!”. I wonder if he would have said that if my infant wasn’t attending the conference, the result of no childcare options for participants (dockristy touches on this issue of inclusive conferences for caregivers in her recent blog post).
Infanticide is the intentional killing of infants. Legally, “infanticide” can refer to the deliberate killing of any infant under the age of 12 months (Kellet, 1992). Here I use the term for intentional infant killing around the time of birth, as this is the time in which it usually occurs. Infanticide has been practised in a wide range of cultures through time, and has been argued in some anthropological texts to be an adaptive strategy to environmental, economic, and social circumstances since the Pleistocene era (Hausfater and Hrdy, 1984:xxix).
Common methods for disposing of unwanted children in non-Christian cultures were exposure or drowning without subsequent burial or with covert burial (reviewed in Gilmore and Halcrow, 2014). Some of the motives documented for infanticide include poverty, and if a baby was born with a physical deformity or was “weak”. The sex of infants was also an important factor in infanticide practice for many cultures.
What evidence are these bioarchaeological studies using to inform their interpretations of infanticide? For most papers their main evidence cited for infanticide is a peak rate of mortality around the age of full-term gestation (the perinatal period of about 38-41 weeks gestation) (e.g. Mays 1993, Mays and Eyers, 2011, Smith and Kahila, 1992).*
However, we know from modern age-at-death information that it is normal to see a high rate of infant death at around full-term gestation (see Halcrow et al. 2008 for a review of this evidence). Birth is the most crucial time in a baby’s and mother’s life. Birth and the first few days of life are a dangerous time for a baby with the risk of mortality being extremely high (Kelnar et al., 1995:1). Birth complications, maternal health factors and the risk of disease are likely to have increased the incidence of perinatal deaths and stillbirths in the past. Postpartum dangers include trauma, pneumonia due to infection of the amniotic cavity (Redfern, 2007:185), and respiratory distress syndrome, particularly for pre-term or low birth-weight perinates, owing to the immaturity of the lungs. Environmental hazards for the newborn include infections, bathing in contaminated water, and tetanus due to the use of dirty instruments (Kelnar et al., 1995:6-8, Redfern, 2007:185).
Unsurprisingly, this high rate of infant death around the time of birth has also been found in the archaeological record throughout the world and during different time periods. In the majority of the prehistoric Southeast Asian sites I have worked on we find a high peak of mortality occurring around the time of birth. Other sites with this type of age distribution include Argolid in the Aegean (Angel, 1971), Roman period Britain (Mays, 1993), Southeast Europe (Boric and Stefanovic, 2004), mediaeval and post-mediaeval England (Lewis and Gowland, 2007), post-contact indigenous populations in North America (Owsley and Jantz, 1985), Roman period Egypt (Tocheri et al., 2005), and many more. Were all these cultures at these different time periods killing their infants and then burying them overtly within community cemeteries? I think not. I am not arguing that infanticide never existed in the past. However, these were often discrete events with the dead babies disposed of covertly.
Probable mother and newborn death from the ‘Neolithic’ site of Khok Phanom Di, Southeast Thailand. This site had a infant death representation of over 40% of the cemetery sample.
A ‘foetal’ (preterm) birth from the site of Ban Non Wat, Bronze Age, Northeast Thailand. If a live birth, this baby wouldn’t have lived for long after birth because of its immaturity.
One of these bioarchaeological papers that has interpreted the practice of infanticide is based on the Yewden Roman villa site at Hambleden in Buckinghamshire, England, which became somewhat of an archaeological “celebrity”, showcased by the BBC in 2010 (Mays and Eyers, 2011). The Hambleden site has been identified as a sophisticated “two corridor” Roman villa (Percival, 1990:531). It was first excavated in 1912 by Alfred Heneage Cocks, who reported the discovery of 103 burials, 97 of which were small infants, buried under courtyards or walls on the north side of the site (Cocks, 1921). The infant bones were recently rediscovered in a museum archive after almost a century.
Mays and Eyers (2011) have compared the perinatal age-at-death distribution pattern to other sites that have been interpreted to have an ‘infanticide’ type mortality profile. Other than that there is nothing in the mortuary or archaeological information to suggest that infanticide was probable. The burials at Hambleden are inconsistent with what is known about Roman infanticide practices. As discussed, exposure or drowning were the most usual methods employed, in which case we might expect to find infant bones as haphazard scatters in middens, remote areas of the landscape, or in wells or waterways as has been the case in Scandinavia (Wicker, 1998:215).
An understanding of the historical and ethnographic information on infanticide practices and burial, the historical or other contextual information associated with the site, infant burial practices, and mortality pattern data information is essential for assessing the likelihood for infanticide. It remains that the most parsimonious explanation for cemeteries with a peak of infant death around full-term are the result of a normal age-at-death pattern.
Why then is there a preoccupation or fascination with this idea of infanticide in the past? Were people in the past seen to be of lower moral status and therefore more likely to kill their babies? Could this continued focus on arguments of infanticide stem from an anthropological legacy of the 19th century of exploring ‘dark’, ‘primitive’ cultures, who were seen to lack intelligence and emotion?
Certainly more critical engagement with the literature on infanticide motives, practices, contextual burial information, and medical literature on the causes and timing of normal infant death offers a good approach to review evidence of infant death in the past. Even a mother with a mind ‘clouded’ by breastfeeding hormones and a ‘rosy’ view of childhood can look at the empirical evidence.
*Smith and Kahila (1992) also include preterm and post-perinatal infants in their “perinate” age category. The preterm infants probably died a natural death, as is likely without modern medical intervention. In historical and modern accounts, infanticide often occurs soon after birth, so the individuals who died in the post-perinatal period were also less likely to be the victims of infanticide.
NOTE: Part of this blog post has been taken from our work in the following papers (all references cited can be found within these publications):
Gilmore, H. and S. E. Halcrow (2014). Interpretations of infanticide in the past. J. Thompson, M.P. Alfonso-Durruty and John Crandell (eds). Tracing Childhood: Bioarchaeological investigations of early lives in antiquity. Florida: University of Florida Press. 123-138.
Halcrow, S. E., N. Tayles and V. Livingstone (2008). “Infant death in prehistoric Southeast Asia” Asian Perspectives. 48 (2): 371-404.
See also Gowland et al. (2014) who offer an excellent re-evaluation of evidence for infanticide in Roman Britain.
Gowland, R. L., A. Chamberlain, & R. C. Redfern (2014). “On the brink of being: re-evaluating infanticide and infant burial in Roman Britain” Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 96: 69-88.
I often hear phrases such as: “I don’t know how you do it” and “your children must be very flexible with your job”. These well-meaning remarks often play on my anxiety as a mother and an academic who has the added challenge of having to undertake fieldwork and data collection overseas. I study human remains from archaeological sites and have worked in Thailand since 2002 and also in Laos, Cambodia and Chile. Because all the skeletal material from these projects are curated locally I do most of my fieldwork and data collection overseas.
I have just come back home to New Zealand after a stint in Northeast Thailand doing data collection from infants and children from an Iron Age site with my two children in tow, a 22-month-old and 10-year-old. Most of my research in bioarchaeology involves working with infants and children. Just as this age group are sensitive indicators of population health today, so too are they good indicators of cultural and health change in the past.
As a parent, I need to balance my professional work with childcare, which for me means packing up my two children for weeks or months on end and re-introducing them to the different languages, cultures, foods, smells, and exotic flora and fauna!
This really is a great opportunity for my children to experience other cultures and languages, but presents some rather major challenges for both me and them. This means leaving family and friends and sometimes missing school, and sporting and our own cultural events. For example, this year we spent Christmas in Thailand, which was of a non-event in a way.
Here are some photos from the early days of my fieldwork in Thailand at the archaeological site of Ban Non Wat, Non Sung Province, Northeast Thailand, which has an unusually long time span from early agricultural development through to the late metal ages (3,800-1,500BP).
Over several excavation seasons at Ban Non Wat a total of about 700 individuals were excavated with about one-third of these aged less than 15 years. This site is very important for documenting the biological and demographic changes that were occurring in the region with the intensification of agricultural practices. The general bioarchaeological model of health change posits that with the introduction of agriculture there is a deterioration of health as a result of the increase of sedentism and population density, leading to more insanitary living conditions. However, my work and others from mainland Southeast Asia is challenging this Neolithic Transition model, which is mainly based on bioarchaeological investigation in North America and Europe. What we are finding is evidence for a very late and swift heath and demographic transition in the Iron Age. This is particularly exciting as it fits nicely with archaeological evidence at this time period for an intensification of wet rice agriculture, and changes in water management and socio-economic systems.
My recent data collection season was focused on the the site of Non Ban Jak, which is geographically very close to Ban Non Wat. This site is particularly important because it presents the best preserved collection of Iron Age burials in the region and has a very large proportion of infants represented (potentially half of the skeletal collection). At present we have over 145 individuals represented at this site, and have just secured significant funding for future excavation and analyses of the human and cultural material at this site.
The baby was petrified of the nanny for much of the time this season working on these remains, so my work plan had to be flexible. I worked solidly during her afternoon naps and the evenings, and when she was distracted by the 10 year-old. Sometimes she ‘helped’ washing stones beside me.
With the extension of research at this site, and further research opportunities planned in the region, my fieldwork with infants and children – both past and present – will continue into the future.
Over the years I have developed a general response for when people ask me how I do it. I reply: “It is challenging, but I wouldn’t change my family or my work for the world.”