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Female infant burial sheds more light on Mesolithic Europe

The earliest documented burial of an infant girl in Europe gives us glimpses into burial practices and female personhood in the early Mesolithic period.

Society

An international team of researchers supported by the EU-funded SUCCESS, RESOLUTION and HIDDEN FOODS projects recently discovered the earliest documented burial of a female infant in Europe. The 10 000-year-old burial provides valuable insight into the mortuary practices of prehistoric hunter-gatherers from the early Mesolithic period. Burial practices provide an understanding of the beliefs and structure of past societies. According to the study published in the journal ‘Scientific Reports’, many cultures delayed recognising infants and young children as individual people, “holding them in a liminal state of humanity.” The funerary treatment of young children tells us who was acknowledged as a person, as having the attributes of an individual and as being part of a group. This burial therefore shows us that even infant girls were recognised as full persons in this Mesolithic society. The burial was found in a cave in Liguria, north-western Italy, and included at least 66 ornamental shell beads, 4 pendants and an eagle-owl talon alongside the infant girl’s remains. These artefacts suggest “significant material and emotional investment in the child’s interment,” according to the study. Many of the ornaments showed significant wear, indicating that they had been worn by group members who then passed them on to the infant girl nicknamed Neve. “There’s a decent record of human burials before around 14,000 years ago,” states the study’s co-lead author Assoc. Prof. Jamie Hodgkins of the University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver) in an article posted on the ‘SciTechDaily’ website. “But the latest Upper Paleolithic period and earliest part of the Mesolithic are more poorly known when it comes to funerary practices. Infant burials are especially rare, so Neve adds important information to help fill this gap.” “The Mesolithic is particularly interesting,” adds co-lead author Assoc. Prof. Caley Orr, also from CU Denver. “It followed the end of the final Ice Age and represents the last period in Europe when hunting and gathering was the primary way of making a living. So it’s a really important time period for understanding human prehistory.”

Dental clues

Analyses of the infant’s teeth show that she was 40 to 50 days old when she died. Accentuated lines in the prenatal enamel reveal that either Neve or her mother experienced stress that halted the growth of her teeth 47 and 28 days before she was born. Further analyses of the infant’s teeth suggest that the pregnant mother had followed a land-based diet similar to late Upper Palaeolithic individuals from the area. “Right now, we have the oldest identified female infant burial in Europe,” notes Assoc. Prof. Hodgkins. “Archaeological reports have tended to focus on male stories and roles, and in doing so have left many people out of the narrative. Protein and DNA analyses are allowing us to better understand the diversity of human personhood and status in the past. Without DNA analysis, this highly decorated infant burial could possibly have been assumed male.” The SUCCESS (The earliest migration of Homo sapiens in Southern Europe: understanding the biocultural processes that define our uniqueness) and RESOLUTION (Radiocarbon, tree rings, and solar variability provide the accurate time scale for human evolution and geoscience) projects are hosted by the University of Bologna, Italy. HIDDEN FOODS (Plant foods in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic societies of SE Europe and Italy) was hosted by Sapienza University of Rome. For more information, please see: SUCCESS project website RESOLUTION project website HIDDEN FOODS project

Keywords

SUCCESS, RESOLUTION, HIDDEN FOODS, burial, infant, Mesolithic, Europe

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