|17 February 2015
Earliest example of death during childbirth
A prehistoric cemetery in Irkutsk, near the southern tip of Lake Baikal in eastern Russia, is partially covered by city development and has not been fully excavated. All 101 of the bodies found so far were members of a hunter-gatherer community that roamed the area between 8,000 and 7,000 years ago. It is rare to find transient hunter-gatherer communities who buried their dead in formal cemeteries, yet archaeologists have documented this practice at several other sites in northeastern Asia.
An archaeologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, Angela Lieverse studies these ancient communities. In 2012, Lieverse was revisiting some of the bones which were in storage at Irkutsk State University. These had been interpreted as a mother, 20 to 25 years old, and a single child, but Lieverse realised there were duplicates of four or five of the fragile bones.
The finding may be the oldest confirmed evidence of twins, and one of the earliest examples of death during childbirth.
Lieverse says that one of the twins might have been positioned with its feet down and was partially delivered, possibly trapped or locked with its sibling, leading to a fatal obstructed birth.
Cases of death during childbirth and instances of twins tend to be invisible in the archaeological record. There have been some cases of babies of a similar age buried in the same grave, but it would be difficult to tell how they were related.
Maternal death would have been common in prehistory, yet it's hard to find archaeological evidence of a woman dying during childbirth. Fetal bones are also quite fragile and less likely to survive than adult bones.
The young mother was buried lying on her back with several marmot teeth adorning her corpse - quite typical of the graves at the site.
Edited from LiveScience (4 February 2015), CTV News (9 February 2015)
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