An elaborate burial from the Mesolithic Period is surprising archaeologists, not because of decoration of the tomb but its occupant: an infant girl who lived just 40 to 50 days. The 10,000-year-old burial is providing a unique look at the baby’s brief life and changing ideas about how some prehistoric humans treated their dead. The team’s research was published today in Scientific Reports.
“Right now, we have the oldest identified female infant burial in Europe,” said Jamie Hodgkins, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Colorado, Denver, in a university press release. “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 grave belongs to an infant nicknamed Neve, who was first discovered in 2017 in a cave in northwestern Italy alongside other artifacts. Before the researchers even got to Neve, they spent two field seasons working on Ice Age tools, which are typically associated with Neanderthals. They also came across the worked bones of boars and elk, indicating past meals of the cave’s ancient occupants.
Farther into the cave, the team found shell beads, and a few days later, a vault containing the infant’s remains. The remains were covered with dozens of pierced shell beads and pendants, as well as the talon of an eagle owl. While the team thinks some of the tools at the site precede the burial by several millennia, the shells were clearly left to decorate the grave.
Using ancient DNA, protein analysis, and microscopic examination of her teeth, the team was able to identify Neve’s particular genetic lineage, her sex, and her age at death of 2 months. Radiocarbon dating confirmed she died about 10,000 years ago.
“There’s a decent record of human burials before around 14,000 years ago,” said Hodgkins. “But the latest Upper Paleolithic 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.”
Neve’s is not the earliest known adorned grave of an infant. The remains of two babies were found at a site in Alaska and dated to 11,500 years ago; grave goods accompanied them, indicating their importance to the people who buried them.
Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.