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BIRTH Report Summary

Project ID: 640557
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.1.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - BIRTH (Births, mothers and babies: prehistoric fertility in the Balkans between 10000 – 5000 BC)

Reporting period: 2015-10-01 to 2016-10-31

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

BIRTH project incorporates a holistic approach in understanding fertility and skeletal, nutritive and cultural factors influencing birth rates in the period between 10000 and 5000. cal BC in the Central Balkans.
The main objectives of the BIRTH project are:
1. To establish the number of pregnancies prehistoric mothers had, the size of their pelvises and the size of babies.
2. To determine the ways in which Neolithic changes in dietary practices influenced food quality and the duration of breastfeeding.
3. To establish the chronology of Neolithic Demographic Transition in the Balkans.
4. To understand the attitudes towards pregnancy, birthing and babies in prehistory.
The project investigates human and animal skeletal evidence, plant remains and archaeological artefacts from about 300 Mesolithic and Neolithic sites in Serbia. In addition to eight researchers, the project has numerous collaborators, and has established collaborations with over twenty museums and scientific institutions in Serbia, Germany, France, England, Macedonia, and Croatia.

All current knowledge on population size in prehistory is indirect, i.e. it is based on the analysis of the density of archaeological remains, operating under assumption that a greater number of finds implies the presence of a greater number of people. BIRTH will provide first direct biological indicators on the number of pregnancies and determine whether Neolithic mothers actually bore more children in comparison to Palaeolithic ones. We will establish at what age women got pregnant for the first and last time, i.e. whether the Neolithic saw a change in the duration of the reproductive period. Also, we will determine how long the interval between pregnancies was.
Even though the pelvic shape and the size of baby’s head are very important for the successful birth, scientists have paid little attention to these problems up to date, with the exception of individual Palaeolithic human remains. BIRTH will investigate whether the new sedentary lifestyle in the Neolithic, accompanied by changes in diet and physical activities, also lead to changes in the human skeleton that could have had a positive effect on pregnancy and birthing success.
Even though diet and its nutritive and micronutritive potential are extremely important for growth, development, and fertility, our present knowledge on Neolithic dietary changes is mostly based on indirect evidence, and very few analysis were done on skeletons themselves. The analyses on plant and animal remains from archaeological sites definitely signal the emergence of new foodstuffs; however the extent and nature of this dietary change and its effects on human health are still far from understood. BIRTH will determine at what point milk and cereals became a part of human diet, and what were the consequences of these changes on human health and fertility, as well as what kind of weaning food was used and whether Neolithic mothers breastfed their babies for shorter periods of time. Even though the range of prehistoric foodstuffs available to and consumed by prehistoric people is fairly known, the nutritive potential of these foodstuffs, the intake of certain microelements and potential changes in element intake during the Neolithic were not taken into account.
BIRTH will assess the nutritive and micronutritive potential of prehistoric diet, and the presence of elements vital for growth, development, and fertility in human skeletal remains.
How: We will collect data on all foodstuffs available and used by humans between 10000 and 5000 cal BC, and determine their nutritive and micronutritive potential. We will use mass spectrometry to analyze certain elements (Iron, Zinc and Calcium) in human teeth, in order to determine potential diachronic changes in the presence of these elements caused by changes in the diet.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

The main aim of the StG ERC BIRTH project is to investigate the key biological and cultural mechanisms affecting fertility increase during Neolithic and throughout the first 13 months we have already made important discoveries regarding prehistoric fertility. BIRTH provided the first biological evidences about the number of pregnancies of prehistoric mothers, indirect evidences for appearance of new food for prehistoric babies and indications for the beginning of human sedentism earlier than it previously thought. BIRTH team was very active in scientific research, development of international and national scientific collaboration, promoting the ERC to the scientific community in the region, and in promoting the project to the wider public.
BIRTH discovered indirect evidence that new type of food for prehistoric babies appeared with Neolithic. Since approximately 8000 years ago, thousands of bone spoons appeared throughout the whole Neolithic world. Our assumption that with those spoons prehistoric people fed their babies is confirmed by microscopic investigation which showed bite marks of deciduous teeth on each of 30 analyzed artefacts. Spoons indicate appearance of a new type of gruel for babies, and if so, that new weaning practice could provide shorter lactation for mothers which probably influenced the fertility.
BIRTH provided the first direct biological evidence about the number of pregnancies of prehistoric mothers. We have collected 190 teeth from people who lived between 10000 and 5000 BC which represents a tremendous collection of preserved dental material from one of the most important periods in human evolution when, for the first time, fertility increase had happened. Preliminary results present the first biological evidence for the increase of the number of babies with Neolithic in the history of science.
BIRTH published evidence that human sedentism appeared before the Neolithic. A sedentary lifestyle is most commonly associated with the emergence of farming and animal husbandry, starting from about 6000 BC. But our study of animal bones, whose skeletal elements can serve as a seasonal indicator, points out a year-round activity in the region of Danube Gorges. This is an extremely important discovery for our understanding of the evolution of human sedentism and important evidence that some of the benefits of sedentary way of life for the motherhood appeared much earlier than we thought.
BIRTH published the first evidence about the process of Neolithic Demographic Transition in the Balkans. Although the Balkan region was an important region for the Neolithization of Europe, the population dynamics in this region was never studied by radiocarbon probability distribution. BIRTH made the first study of this kind for the Balkan region and after analysis of all existing absolute dates from the region, published its results in the high rank journal PloS One.
BIRTH provided preliminary evidence about the changes in the shape of female pelvises with Neolithic. Increase of the number of babies in the Neolithic is one of the most important processes in the human evolution, but our knowledge about female biology behind that success is still not very well known. Our study, preliminary in this moment due to the small number of pelvises analysed, gives an important indication that with Neolithic female pelvis became wider which could have been a very important implication for successful delivery for both mothers and babies.
The BIRTH project has published 2 papers in high-impact journals, 1 book with results of anthropological analysis, 1 book about methods for palaeodemographic research, organized one session, had 11 conference papers at 7 international conferences, 2 conference papers at one national conference, had 3 poster presentations at international conferences, and one poster at the national conference.
During the first 13 months of the project, BIRTH has developed an impressive network of collaborations with five

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

BIRTH will for the first time determine the number of pregnancies in the prehistoric women using biological evidence. The project has also for the first time in the history of science established evidence that sedentism in the Balkan region started much earlier than previously thought.
By counting these incremental lines, BIRTH will determine the number of pregnancies prehistoric women had. Given that each cementum line represents a year in an individual’s life, we will determine when did the first and last pregnancy occur, and what was the interval between two pregnancies. This will represent first biological indicators of prehistoric fertility in the history of science. Further application of this method on the teeth of other populations will create a completely novel scientific framework for research on ancient fertility, and it will enable the examination of birth rates through time. In the future, by applying this method, we will be able to investigate the effects of lifestyle, diet, and culture on fertility. Also, scientists will be able to examine the effects pregnancy has on the skeletal system and chemical composition of bones, in cases of women with known number of pregnancies. This research is relevant for modern society as well, given that there is still much to be learned about the consequences of pregnancy on the female skeleton. Simultaneously, it will be possible to examine the chemical composition of dental tissue during the year in which the woman was pregnant. These are valuable data for modern medicine as well: establishing which elements are in deficit during pregnancy, and to which extent.
BIRTH will measure the bones of adult males and females in order to obtain data on the height and body mass index of potential prehistoric parents, whereas the measurements of bones of prehistoric babies will provide data on their dimensions and body mass at birth. Also, we will examine the pelvises of prehistoric women, their dimensions and shape, and reconstruct the size of babies’ heads, as this feature greatly affects the difficulty of birth.
BIRTH will analyze dental calculus, which stores remains of food we eat throughout life. Consequently, we can detect traces of cereals and animal milk in the composition of calculus, and determine the time when these foodstuffs made an appearance. We will also study body characteristics and the health status on the basis of skeletal analysis, and obtain new data on the consequences of these crucial changes on human biology. The analysis of dental calculus in the teeth of children will reveal the types of weaning food used. In addition, weaning practices will be studied by looking into artefacts used in such practices, such as bone spoons. Also, we will perform analyses of stable isotopes of Nitrogen and Sulphur in skeletons of children, which will reveal the time when they started consuming food other than mother’s milk, i.e. the duration of breastfeeding.
BIRTH will collect data on all foodstuffs available and used by humans between 10000 and 5000 cal BC, and determine their nutritive and micronutritive potential. We will use mass spectrometry to analyze certain elements (Iron, Zinc and Calcium) in human teeth, in order to determine potential diachronic changes in the presence of these elements caused by changes in the diet.
The quantity of (bio) archaeological material from a given period is proportional to the size of population – for example, more people, more burials or food remains. By radiocarbon dating, it is possible to determine the absolute age of organic remains, i.e. from which period they originate (how many years before present day). By dating about 300 human and animal bone samples from Neolithic sites in the Balkans, we will obtain the absolute age of each one of them. Given that the samples were selected randomly, the changes of the resultion of dates with respect to different time periods (e.g. centuries) within the Neolithic sequence will provide

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