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The value of mothers to society: responses to motherhood and child rearing practices in prehistoric Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - VAMOS (The value of mothers to society: responses to motherhood and child rearing practices in prehistoric Europe)

Reporting period: 2021-01-01 to 2021-12-31

Analysing the link between reproduction and women’s social status, this project investigated social responses to pregnancy, birth and childrearing from the late Neolithic to the Late Iron Age (c. 3000–15 BC) through case studies in central Europe. Motherhood and childrearing, often seen as natural, mundane and inevitable parts of women’s lives, are also cultural and historically contingent practices that build the foundations of societies.
Exploring the value of mothers to society aids in understanding important long-term developments such as social stratification, increasing population density and the entrenching of gender roles during the three millennia under investigation. Current political discourses about mothers in society and the workforce frequently refer to ‘natural’ and ‘ancient’ childrearing practices. This project contributes significantly to our understanding of motherhood and counters naive narratives of childrearing in prehistory with science-based information.
Graves of pregnant women, double burials of women and children, and infant burials provide further data. The study extends to childrearing (care, feeding, but also abuse, neglect and infanticide) and explores how children were treated after death for insights into their social significance.
Bringing together the latest developments in archaeological science, including osteology, dental analysis, ancient DNA, isotope and protein analyses with innovative interpretative approaches, this project explored whether all women were expected to become mothers, highlights alternative lifeways, evaluates risks and consequences of becoming a mother and reflects on the social value of reproductive success.
One strand of our research was the development of bio-anthropological methods that enable the differentiation of women who have and have not given birth based on osteological features on the pelvis. Our fourfold approach included recording pelvic features on prehistoric skeletons, work on documented collections, anatomical specimens and clinical CT data. The study examined pelvic features in over 400 prehistoric and 200 modern female skeletons and tested their significance to predict births.
We discovered the ‘sacral preauricular extension’ and ‘sacral preauricular notch’ as new features at the sacroiliac junction (Pany-Kucera et al. 2019) and confirmed their relevance in identified collections (Pany-Kucera et al. 2021). CT scans from a forensic database of recently deceased individuals aided in understanding the relationship between pelvic features and biological variables such as age, sex, stature and size, pelvic shape and the number of past pregnancies and births, demonstrating that pubic pitting is the most reliable marker to predict the number of children (Waltenberger et al. 2021, 2021, 2022, 2022).
Our Early Bronze Age case studies Unterhautzenthal (Rebay-Salisbury et al. 2018) and Schleinbach (Pany-Kucera et al. 2020) served to detail our approach. Contextualizing the findings with an in-depth status analysis of women’s graves, we found a young age for first-time mothers in their late teens and no particular differentiation between different kinds of women that could be explained by reproductive success. The typical age of first motherhood corresponds to high status values, suggesting a link between reproductive age and potential, but not necessarily actual, reproductive success. The lifetime maternal mortality risk can be estimated at around 10-15%, with women giving birth to between 7 and 8 children on average if they reached the age of menopause.
We tested the mitochondrial DNA of co-buried individuals at several sites to confirm the biological relatedness of mother-child relationships, finding that motherhood was not exclusively based on biological ties. The archaeological context of the burials is crucial for understanding social relations (Rebay-Salisbury 2017, 2018).
An important aspect of the mother-child relationship is breastfeeding and weaning. To understand which foods may have been used after breastfeeding, we applied organic residue analysis to vessels with which young children were fed and developed a minimally invasive strategy to sample Bronze and Iron Age feeding vessels for molecules absorbed into the ceramics matrix. We demonstrated that the earliest baby bottle securely contextualized with buried infants contained milk of ruminants (Dunne et al. 2019), and there is more variability in feeding vessel content through time. The use of feeding vessels may have made mothering a more collective, shared responsibility within the community (Rebay-Salisbury et al. 2021).
Childhood diet after weaning was reconstructed through macroscopic and microscopic tooth wear in the juvenile dentition. The combination of this research with the results of peptide-based sex determination enabled the discovery of sex-specific childhood dietary choices (Bas et al. 2020, 2021). We discussed differences in biological, chronological and social ages at the SSCIP conference in 2018, and cross-culturally compared the major thresholds in a child’s life (Rebay-Salisbury & Pany-Kucera 2020).
The age of first motherhood and the age gap between couples was explored through an individuals’ database and by gaining detailed age estimations with a multiple-methods approach. We applied tooth cementum annulation and developed a method of measuring dental cementum in thin sections of teeth under the microscope, in inhumed and cremated samples (e.g. Brno-Horní Heršpice). Through this, we found significant age gaps between symbolically charged double burials of men and women in the Bronze Age, and the young age of motherhood from Bronze Age women compared to Iron Age women (Rebay-Salisbury 2016, 2017, 2018, in press).
Work on our Late Bronze Age case studies involved the analysis of cremated human remains, including morphological age and sex estimation, dental and histological thin sections, and strontium isotope analysis of calcined bone. At the Late Bronze Age cemetery of Inzersdorf, we investigated the combination of individuals in multiple burials (Fritzl 2017), discovered the presence of non-local children and a wider range of mobility for women (Fritzl et al. in prep).
To understand the sex-based treatment of infants and small children, we implemented a recently published protocol of testing sex-specific peptides in dental enamel with nanoflow liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (nanoLC-MS/MS). We identified the male sex in a murdered boy from an Early Bronze Age storage pit (Rebay-Salisbury et al. 2020) and went on to identified the chromosomal sex of 75 children under 12 from the Early Bronze Age cemetery of Franzhausen. This study showed that biological sex aligned with gendered burial practices from birth and Franzhausen was a society with high gender intensity. However, women and girls had slightly more scope to non-conform to gender rules than males (Rebay-Salisbury et al. 2022). Combined with high quality archaeological and bio-anthropological data, knowledge of the sex of buried infants and children allows examining sex-based differences of morbidity, mortality and funerary treatment of children after death.
Late Bronze and Iron Age vessels that may have been used to feed infants © Photo: Katharina Rebay-Sa
Katharina Rebay-Salisbury and Doris Pany-Kucera in the Natural History Museum, Vienna © Photo: Luiza