The 10,000-year-old burial of a female infant, the earliest such burial known in Europe, shows that society even in Mesolithic times honored its youngest members and that females were treated the same as males in this regard.
Archaeologists at the dig say that the vast array of grave goods found at her burial site also points to the value placed on the life of the tiny girl who was laid to rest in a cave in what is now Liguria, Italy.
An international team of researchers headed by a husband-and-wife team of paleoanthropologists, Dr. Jamie Hodgkins and Dr. Caley Orr, from the University of Colorado, first discovered the burial site in a cave called Arma Veirana in Liguria in 2017.
10,000 year old burial shows great respect given to infant girl
As the oldest documented burial of an infant girl in European history, the team has researched the site and the hundreds of grave goods found there over the years, recently publishing a paper on their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.
“The evolution and development of how early humans buried their dead as revealed in the archaeological record has enormous cultural significance,” says Hodgkins, who is an associate professor of anthropology at UC Denver.
She worked alongside her husband,Caley Orr, who is not only a paleoanthropologist but an anatomist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine as well, Archaeology News Network reports.
The project’s co-directors include Fabio Negrino from the University of Genoa and Stefano Benazzi from the University of Bologna, as well as researchers from the University of Montreal, Washington University, the University of Ferrara, the University of Tubingen, and the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University.
It took one year for the team to fully excavate the 10,000-year-old remains and the objects found at the burial site.
Rich array of grave goods around female infant part of first known Mesolithic era burial in Europe
The rich array of grave goods around the tiny girl included over 60 pierced shell beads, four pendants, and an eagle’s talon. The grave is especially significant since it is from the early Mesolithic period; there are very few burials that have been discovered from this entire era of European history.
But perhaps most striking of all was the great honor showed to the young girl, signifying that her life had been greatly valued by her people.
Unfortunately, looters had some time ago found the cave, located in northwestern Italy. The Pleistocene-era tools that emerged from these lootings were what first interested researchers in the site.
Despite this, the team of archaeologists found a treasure trove of historical objects in the cave even before their discovery of the burial site of the young girl.
Two entire excavation seasons were spent near the mouth of the cave, with the team systematically exposing layer upon layer of implements, called Mousterian tools, that dated back to over fifty thousand years; these are typically associated with Neanderthals.
Incredibly, they also discovered the remains of ancient meals, including the bones of wild boar and elk, which showed cutting marks, along with pieces of charred fat. However, the team needed to unearth the Paleolithic layers of deposits in order to understand the stratigraphy of the cave. These upper Paleolithic deposits, they believed, may have been the source of the more recent stone tools they found down into the cave floor.
Oldest identified female burial in Europe from hunter-gatherer era
The further they delved into the cave, the more and more they discovered shell beads with holes that had been carefully drilled into them.
Hodgkins realized her team had discovered a significant archaeological site after she examined the beads back in her laboratory in Denver. Soon afterward, using dental tools and a small paintbrush to carefully prize away ten thousand years of dirt and detritus, the archaeologists found parts of the cranial vault of a skull and painstakingly-laid-out lines of pierced shell beads.
Radiocarbon dating has now shown that the infant girl, who the team named “Neve,” lived ten thousand
years ago. Incredibly, amelogenin protein and DNA reveals that she belonged to a lineage of European females known as the “U5b2b haplogroup.”
“There’s a decent record of human burials before around 14,000 years ago,” Hodgkins explains, adding “But the latest Upper Palaeolithic 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,” Orr stated to the University of Colorado press. “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.”
Grave goods had been worn, passed down through family
Detailed dental research into the infant’s teeth showed that she had been only forty to fifty days old. Further carbon and nitrogen analyses showed that her mother had eaten a land-based diet while she was pregnant with her.
Not only did the objects discovered in fact show remarkable amounts of crafting, they often had been worn, indicating that they had been passed down, perhaps from her mother or other older members of the family.
Hodgkins says that this burial, along with that of another female of approximately the same age, at Upward Sun River in Alaska, suggests that infant females were seen not as troublesome burdens but as fully human. This respect of human life appears to have deep origins in a common culture shared by peoples who migrated into Europe and to North America as well.
It is also possible, she states, that this indicated a level of development that arose in parallel in different populations across the world.
Neve shows, she says, that even the youngest females in that Mesolithic culture were recognized as full persons.
“Right now, we have the oldest identified female infant burial in Europe,” said Hodgkins. “I hope that quickly becomes untrue. 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 discovery of this cherished child who lived and died ten thousand years in the past leads to increasing knowledge about the past and the role females have played throughout human history.
Hodgkins states, “This is about increasing our knowledge of women, but also acknowledging that we as archaeologists can’t understand the past through a singular lens. We need as diverse a perspective as possible because humans are complex.”