A 7,700-Year-Old Case of Death During Childbirth in Siberia
If childbirth is still today one of the most dangerous things a woman can do, imagine how dangerous it was 7,700 years ago, before modern medicine. The remains of a Stone Age Siberian mother and her newborn twins, one still in utero, found in a Paleolithic graveyard near Lake Baikal, constitutes the earliest grave found of a mother who died in the midst of childbirth.
An archaeologist examining the remains in early 2015 found that the mother had just given birth to twins, not just one baby as was previously believed. She found tiny duplicate bones and knew the babies were twins, said a LiveScience article.
The family and community may not have known the mother was pregnant with twins because one of the fetuses apparently had not exited the body yet.
The graveyard, with 101 bodies found so far, is near the city of Irkutsk to the north of the southern end of Lake Baikal. The cemetery is called Lokomotiv because workers found it while digging out the side of a hill to build the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1897.
A Cambridge University map shows the Stone Age grave Lokomotiv north of Russia’s Lake Baikal, the deepest freshwater body of water in the world.
“The cemetery is partially covered by city development, it hasn't been fully excavated,” reported Live Science. “All 101 of the bodies found so far at Lokomotiv were members of a hunter-gatherer community that roamed the area between 8,000 and 7,000 years ago. It's rare to find transient hunter-gatherer communities who buried their dead in formal cemeteries, but archaeologists have documented this practice at several other sites in northeastern Asia.”
Archaeologist Angela Lieverse, who studies such communities, looked at the remains of the mother and what researchers earlier thought was one fetus while examining bones from Lokomotiv in 2012. Evidence suggests the babies were stillborn. One baby’s feet were facing toward the vaginal opening and the infant had been partially delivered. Breech birth can be risky even today and often results in a caesarean. The other baby was facing downward, apparently still in the mother’s uterus.
Left: Segments of the occipital bone from fetus 1. Right: Segments of the occipital bone from fetus 2. (Antiquity)
Lieverse said babies of a similar age have been found in very old graves, but it’s rare to be able to determine that twins were in them.
“Maternal death would have been common in prehistory,” wrote Live Science. “Still, it's hard to find archaeological evidence of a woman dying during childbirth — even if she died with a baby still inside of her. For instance, in ancient Rome, the law known as Lex Caesaria mandated that if a pregnant woman died, her baby had to be cut out her womb before she could be buried... Fetal bones are also quite fragile and are less likely to survive than adult bones.”
But one such event did happen in Italy, though at a later date. Italian scientists found the 1,400-year-old remains of a woman and a fetus in Bologna. Hers was a rare case of a ‘coffin birth’, in which the pregnant woman gave birth to a baby after her death. The fetus had been partially delivered and its head and upper body were outside the pelvic cavity, though the leg bones were still inside it. Although it is possible that the woman died mid-birth, she had been purposefully buried, so it seems unlikely she would have been placed in a grave with a baby half-delivered.
There was another case of twins unborn in their mother’s remains in South Dakota, according to Lieverse’s article in the journal Antiquity. Those remains date from between 1600 and 1832 AD and were found in the early 1980s. Again, the community may not have known the mother was pregnant with twins because she hadn’t given birth yet.
Lieverse, with the University of Saskatchewan in Canada and the Baikal-Hokkaido Archaeology Project, said the remains she examined were the oldest twins ever found in an archaeological grave.
The online journal Western Digs said in November 2014 that a 12-week-old baby and a prenatal fetus from 11,500 years ago were found buried together near the Upward Sun River in central Alaska in a richly decorated grave. It was a lavish burial with numerous grave goods, including stone points and four long foreshafts carved from elk antler
Like the Siberian people, the Alaskans were hunter-gatherers. The remains were found in a seasonal hunting, foraging, and fishing camp.
In the Alaskan grave, four spear shafts made of elk antler and the biface stone points with them are the oldest examples of these hunting tools found in the Americas. (Potter et al., PNAS)
Top Image: Researchers said the bones of this woman’s twin fetuses are visible near her pelvis and thighs. The three likely died in childbirth. Source: Vladimir Bazaliiskii
By Mark Miller