The Earliest Infant Burial in Europe
The grave of Neve, a baby infant girl, who died 10,000 years ago reflects how beloved she was to her community
Some cultures bury their dead much differently than others, such as the differences seen between Tibetan sky burials and what we may traditionally observe in western, Judeo-Christian burial rites. One of my first anthropology courses facilitated studying these differences.
In that class, we surveyed the different headstones of local cemeteries. We compared and contrasted trends in culture over time as represented by changes in headstones. How people revered their dead was represented in the everlasting forms and figures adorning any graveyard. That lesson illuminated to me differences in burying our dead from group to group, and from time to time.
Furthermore, how we bury our dead reflects each buried individual’s personhood. A mausoleum nowadays represents a different social status of the deceased compared to a simple cross adorning a mound of dirt… Just as the Great Pyramids of Giza did in the past. For various reasons beyond the scope of this post, some cultures delay personhood toward groups of people. And it is not uncommon that infants have delayed personhood, especially upon death.
Suffice to say, mortuary rites are of significant importance in understanding human practices and cultures. It is the lasting evidence of those individuals being. But, as you can imagine, the earlier we go into the human experience, the less we know of these practices. The paleontological and archaeological record of early human burials is sparse. So, any finding is impactful.
A newly published paper in Nature Scientific Reports of a highly decorated burial of a young female infant, 40 to 50 days old at the time of her death1. She was discovered at the Arma Veirana cave, a site in the Italian Alps. This baby has been named Neve. She died sometime between 10,211 to 9,910 years ago.
Her time of life was during the early Mesolithic period. This is a period where well-documented burials are so rare. The early Mesolithic, or even Middle and Upper Paleolithic records of infant burials can be summarized by inadequate excavations. For example, the 27,000-year-old twins buried at Krems-Watchberg have minimal documentation2. Only recently did we realize they were twins because of ancient DNA analysis3.
Later Mesolithic and even early Neolithic burials, on the other hand, sites such as Lepenski Vir are more established. This site has yielded the burial of 40 young infants where both females and males were buried similarly with no strong differentiating factors based upon grave goods4. Other late Mesolithic sites, in Greece5 and Denmark, buried young children similarly to adults and sometimes even more ornately. For example, the young Vedbaek child was buried in the arms of a swan wing and covered in ochre6. But in sites in Sweden, children were interred separately and without artifacts7. As you can see by this brief summary, there is great variation in how prehistoric peoples buried their dead children.
The burial of Neve is different. In contrast to other early Mesolithic sites, her recovery is well documented and thoroughly analyzed. From her in utero nutritional status to the time where she had maximal stress prior to her death, the authors were able to extract and analyze so much. For example, she was buried with a rich selection of burial goods. Alongside her, she had over 60 pierced shell beads and three pendants, as well as an eagle-owl talon. This treasure trove of funerary artifacts signifies the grief and loss of such a young baby girl to this ancient culture. The artifacts that accompanied her body demonstrate her people recognized her as a full person. Even her cave site resembles a sort of steeped chapel, as seen below.
Of interest, Neve’s burial is similar to a ~6-week old infant girl buried in a site in the Upper Sun River, in Alaska8. This other baby died around 11,500 years ago. Not only was she buried in a different time, but also in a different continent. But, she, too, interred with ornate grave goods. Isn’t that curious?
When personhood is attributed towards infants, in the form of ornaments in the grave, it bolsters status beyond death. It makes me wonder, just who was Neve, a baby less than two months old to these people to have such an ordained grave? And the extension of such funerary treatment to female infants among early Mesolithic people indicates a degree of egalitarianism regardless of age or sex/gender, another curiously in itself as we continue to struggle with treating all people equally nowadays.
Hodgkins, J., Orr, C.M., Gravel-Miguel, C. et al. An infant burial from Arma Veirana in northwestern Italy provides insights into funerary practices and female personhood in early Mesolithic Europe. Sci Rep 11, 23735 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-02804-z
Einwögerer, T., Friesinger, H., Händel, M., Neugebauer-Maresch, C., Simon, U., & Teschler-Nicola, M. (2006). Upper Palaeolithic infant burials. Nature, 444(7117), 285. https://doi.org/10.1038/444285a
Teschler-Nicola, M., Fernandes, D., Händel, M., Einwögerer, T., Simon, U., Neugebauer-Maresch, C., Tangl, S., Heimel, P., Dobsak, T., Retzmann, A., Prohaska, T., Irrgeher, J., Kennett, D. J., Olalde, I., Reich, D., & Pinhasi, R. (2020). Ancient DNA reveals monozygotic newborn twins from the Upper Palaeolithic. Communications Biology, 3(1), 650. https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-020-01372-8
B. Čuljković, S. Stefanović, S. Romac, in The Iron Gates in prehistory: new perspectives. BAR International Series 1893, C. Bonsall, V. Boroneanţ, I. Radovanović, Eds. (Archaeopress, Oxford, 2008), pp. 171–174.
Georgiadis, M. Child burials in Mesolithic and Neolithic southern Greece: a synthesis. Child Past 4, 31–45 (2011).
Albrethsen, S. E. & Petersen, B. Excavation of a Mesolithic cemetary at Vedbaek, Denmark. Acta Arch. 47, 1–28 (1976).
Fahlander, F. Mesolithic childhoods: changing life-courses of young hunter-gatherers in the Stone Age of southern Scandinavia. Child Past 5, 20–34 (2012).
Potter, B. A., Irish, J. D., Reuther, J. D., & McKinney, H. J. (2014). New insights into Eastern Beringian mortuary behavior: a terminal Pleistocene double infant burial at Upward Sun River. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(48), 17060–17065. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1413131111