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Mesolithic child burial hints at cultural attitudes at end of ice age

When did humans develop cultural beliefs about children, gender or burial practices?

Answers remains elusive, and they are made more so by the lack of remains from key periods of prehistory.

But analyses of the grave of a young girl, published in Nature Scientific Reports and Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, may offer valuable clues about social views at the end of the last ice age.

Archaeologist Claudine Gravel-Miguel of the New Mexico Consortium was on a team looking for Neanderthal artifacts at the Arma Veirana cave in northwest Italy when someone spotted part of modern human neonatal female’s cranium.

“I looked over, and I saw — in the square right next to me — this little piece of bone,” she recalled. “And — I don’t know, I mean, it's part experience — but, I looked at that bone, and I thought, ‘That is a weird one. I've never seen something like that before.”

Undisturbed burial

Further investigation revealed tiny teeth and, finally, the remains of a 40- to 50-day-old girl.

“We started finding perforated shells that were clearly in the position they had been put in the burial,” Gravel-Miguel said. “It became quite clear quite fast that we had a burial that was in situ — so, not too much disturbed — and that was quite amazing.”

The body was richly decorated with more than 90 shell-beads, mostly from a sea snail called Columbella rustica, found in the Mediterranean about 9 miles away, as well as in other areas of Europe. But the shells weren’t new when they were buried with Neve.

“None of those beads that she got buried with could have been that worn off in 45 days; it's impossible. So, we think that those shells were worn by the member of the community and then passed on, likely when she was born.”

The decorations included perforated pendants made from polished Glycymeris clam shell fragments, which are thicker and would have taken more time to bore and string.

Gravel-Miguel said the presence of beads that took such effort to collect, make and sew speaks to the attitudes of the people who buried the Neve .

“That suggests that this infant was definitely loved and cared for and was important,” she said.

Shell-beads decorated infant's shroud

Gravel-Miguel hypothesizes that Neve’s people buried the shells with her because they felt the objects had failed to protect the child and therefore no longer wanted to use them. Alternatively, the group might have meant them to serve as a link to the late infant.

Analysis using several lines of evidence and scanning techniques suggests the shells decorated a wrap, long since disintegrated, in which Neve was swaddled when she was buried.

“Based on the position of the shells on the body and the way the body was found, and looking at how bodies decompose, we have pretty strong evidence that the body was interred wrapped in something on which those shells were sewn,” said Gravel-Miguel.

Though no one can say for sure, the garment might have been a sling similar to those used by modern hunter-gatherer societies to carry their babies.

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Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.