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29 November 2019
Death in childbirth in Neolithic China

Death in childbirth in the past was likely common because of the lack of modern medicine and because women tended to have far more children than they do today. But it is extremely rare for archaeologists to find clear evidence that a person's cause of death was related to childbirth complications. A new study of the burial of a woman and infant from Neolithic China may provide some of the clearest evidence yet.
     Chinese and Canadian researchers report the finding of a double burial from the Huigou site in China's Henan Province; dated to the 3900-2900 BCE Yangshao Culture, the Neolithic grave revealed an adult female buried with the remains of an infant positioned between her lower legs.
     Young children in this ancient culture were more often interred in urn coffins and were placed in an area outside of the graveyard for adults. To find a baby with an adult meant something else was going on. During excavation, the researchers also "noted that the pubic symphysis [of the woman] was wide open." In order to figure out whether the woman died in childbirth, the researchers took precise measurements of her skeleton. She was found to have been around 25-30 years old when she died, and stood about 5' tall.
     The infant's age was estimated using the size and shape of its bones and teeth, putting its gestational age at 36-40 weeks, or full-term. It was found between the woman's legs, with its head near her knees and its feet in line with hers. "The positioning of the infant remains," the researchers write, "echoes that of the adult female and others in the cemetery, suggesting careful and intentional placement rather than the effects of decay." This position also "strongly suggests that the infant was delivered, even if neither mother nor child survived." Although no DNA work has been done in this case, the researchers assume that the adult female was the infant's biological mother.
     While death during childbirth is not necessarily a remarkable finding, the authors suggest that an analysis of the woman's bony pelvis could hold clues to the specific reason for her death, shedding light on childbirth complications in the past. This woman's long pubic bone may have "increased the risk of delivery," the researchers report, "and may have caused dystocia leading to the death of both mother and child. "It is possible that this individual had already survived at least one difficult delivery prior to the one causing her death," the researchers conclude.
     The Huigou Neolithic mother-infant burial is also just one aspect of the larger research program of Zhou Yawei of Zhengzhou University. As the lead researcher on this study, he emphasizes that his university is doing exciting new things with osteology in the region and concludes that there is so much yet to find out about everyday life in China's past.

Edited from Forbes (25 November 2019)

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