Archaeologists examine a site in a cave in Liguria, Italy, where they uncovered the oldest documented burial of an infant girl in the European archaeological record. Photo by Jamie Hodgkins/CU Denver
Dec. 14 (UPI) -- An international team of researchers has discovered the oldest documented burial of an infant girl in the European archaeological record, they said Tuesday.
The 10,000-year-old burial site, in a cave in Liguria, Italy, includes over 60 pierced shell beads, four pendants and an eagle-owl talon alongside the human remains, the researchers reported, in an article published Tuesday by the journal Scientific Reports.
The discovery provides insight into the early Mesolithic period, from which few recorded burials are known, according to the researchers.
It is also significant, given the seemingly egalitarian treatment for the funeral of an infant female, the researchers said.
"The evolution and development of how early humans buried their dead as revealed in the archaeological record has enormous cultural significance," researcher Jamie Hodgkins said in a press release.
"Infant burials are especially rare," so this finding adds important information to help fill a gap in knowledge spanning from the latest Upper Paleolithic period to the earliest part of the Mesolithic, said Hodgkins, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver.
Mortuary practices offer a window into the worldviews and social structure of past societies, the researchers said.
Specifically, child funeral treatment provides important insight into who was considered a person and afforded the attributes of an individual self, moral agency and eligibility for group membership, they said.
In Western society, archaeologists have historically assumed that figureheads and warriors were male.
However, DNA analyses have proven the existence of female Viking warriors, non-binary leaders and powerful Bronze Age female rulers, previous research says.
The Mesolithic period occurred following the end of the final Ice Age and represents the last period in Europe when hunting and gathering was the primary way of making a living, according to Hodgkins and her colleagues.
Hodgkins and her colleagues first discovered the burial site, at Arma Veirana, a cave in the Ligurian pre-Alps of northwestern Italy, in 2017 and fully excavated the delicate remains in 2018.
The cave is a popular spot for local families to visit, though looters also discovered the site, according to the researchers.
The looters' digging initially exposed the late Pleistocene tools that drew researchers to the area, leading to a series of excavations there.
The team spent its first two excavation seasons near the mouth of the cave, exposing stratigraphic layers that contained tools more than 50,000 years old, which are typically associated with Neandertals in Europe.
They also found the remains of ancient meals such as the cut-marked bones of wild boars and elk, and bits of charred fat.
As the team explored the further reaches of the cave, they began to unearth pierced shell beads. Using dental tools and a small paint brush, the researchers exposed parts of a cranial vault and articulated lines of pierced shell beads, they said.
In a series of analyses coordinated with multiple institutions and numerous experts, the team uncovered several details about the ancient burial.
Radiocarbon dating determined that the child, who the team nicknamed "Neve," lived 10,000 years ago and ancient DNA revealed that the infant was a female belonging to a lineage of European women known as the U5b2b haplogroup.
Detailed virtual histology of the infant's teeth showed that she died 40 to 50 days after birth, and that she experienced stress that briefly halted the growth of her teeth 47 days and 28 days before she was born.
Carbon and nitrogen analyses of the teeth revealed that the infant's mother had been nourishing her in the womb on a land-based diet.
In addition, an analysis of the ornaments adorning the infant demonstrated the care invested in each piece and showed that many of the ornaments exhibited wear that proves they were passed down to the child from group members.
Along with the burial of a similarly aged female from Upward Sun River in Alaska, the funerary treatment of Neve suggests that the recognition of infant females as full persons has deep origins in a common ancestral culture, the researchers said.
This egalitarian view could have been shared by peoples who migrated into Europe and those who migrated to North America, or it may have arisen in parallel in populations across the planet, they said.
"Right now, we have the oldest identified female infant burial in Europe, [but] I hope that quickly becomes untrue," Hodgkins said.
"Archaeological reports have tended to focus on male stories and roles, and in doing so have left many people out of the narrative... This is about increasing our knowledge of women, but also acknowledging that we as archaeologists can't understand the past through a singular lens," she said.