Burial of a 10,000-year-old baby provides insight into the use of baby carriers and heirlooms in prehistory

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If you’ve taken care of a baby, you know how important it is to find ways to multitask. And, when time is of the essence and your to-do list is long, humans find ways to be resourceful, something caregivers have apparently been doing for a long, long time.

The authors of a new article published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory argue that they found evidence of the use of baby carriers 10,000 years ago at the Arma Veirana site in Liguria, Italy. The research, led by Claudine Gravel-Miguel, PhD, of Arizona State University, also includes Jamie Hodgkins, PhD, of the University of Colorado at Denver, associate professor of anthropology and co-principal investigator on the excavations of Arma Veirana.

Because the material used to make early baby carriers does not preserve well in archaeological records, and because prehistoric baby burials are very rare, evidence of prehistoric baby carriers is extremely rare. The site, which includes the oldest documented burial of a female baby in Europe, a 40 to 50-day-old baby, nicknamed Neve, has both. The researchers used innovative analytical methods to extract hard-to-get information about the perforated shell beads found at the site.

The study used a high-definition 3D photogrammetry model of the burial combined with microscopic observations and microCT analyzes of the beads to document in detail how the burial took place and how the beads were likely used by Neve and his community in life and in death. .

The results of this research show that the beads were likely sewn onto a piece of leather or fabric that was used to wrap Neve for her burial. This decoration contained over 70 small pierced shell beads and four large pierced shell pendants, the like of which have not yet been found elsewhere. Many of the beads bear heavy signs of use that could not have been produced during Neve’s short life, demonstrating that they were passed down to her as an heirloom.

“Given the effort to create and reuse these ornaments over time, it is interesting that the community decided to part with these beads at the burial of such a young individual,” said Gravel-Miguel. “Our research suggests that these beads and pendants likely adorned Neve’s baby carrier, which was buried with her.”

Drawing on ethnographic observations of how baby carriers are adorned and used in some modern hunter-gatherer societies, this research suggests that the community of Neve may have decorated their baby carrier with beads in order to protect against evil. However, it is possible that his death signaled that these beads had failed, and it would have been better to bury the medium rather than reuse it.

“Infant burials are so rare, and this one had so many pearls,” Hodgkins said. “Being able to look at the use and positioning of ornaments around the baby to determine that these beads have been passed down and the baby has been wrapped in a way that matches the shape of a carrier is truly a unique insight into the past, giving us a connection to this tragic event that happened so long ago.

Learn more: This new research on Neve contributes to the growing literature on prehistoric childcare and the likely use and reuse of beads to protect individuals and maintain social ties within a community. Neve’s remains were found in 2017 in a cave located in Liguria, Italy. The ongoing study of this rare infant burial provides insight into the customs and daily life of the early Mesolithic period. To read more, click here.

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