Anthro Ticker

Death at Birth: The Earliest Known Prehistoric Twins

Image by Vladimir Bazaliiskii

Imagine the scene…

It’s the Neolitic (or New Stone Age) period and the place is an area that is now known as Irkutsk, Russia, one of the largest Siberian cities. A women is laid to rest in a grave and would not speak again until one day, almost 8,000 years later, her grave and her bones would begin to tell a pretty heartbreaking story.

Uncovered in 1897, the area nicknamed as the ‘Lokomotiv’ cemetery was first revealed during the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The site is, so far, the largest known Neolithic cemetery in northern Asia. You would think that would be enough to make the site interesting and incredible, but it is the particular grave of this prehistoric woman who has been at the center of lots of talk.

An excavation of her grave revealed a member of the hunter-gatherer group in the area between the age of 20-25. Her skeleton was fairly complete and pretty well-preserved. The burial itself wasn’t particularly extraordinary, either.

But what was later found was a set of fetal remains, twins, that died along with their mother in labor.

Image: The skeleton of prehistoric mother in her grave. The small bones in her pelvic-abdominal area and between her thighs are the remains of twins. Credit: Angela Lieverse.

Image: The skeleton of prehistoric mother in her grave. The small bones in her pelvic-abdominal area and between her thighs are the remains of twins. Credit: Angela Lieverse.

It is reasonable to presume that twins were born during the prehistoric ages, but the evidence of this in the archaeological record has not be very well recorded. These babies are the earliest known proof of twins thus far. That is one reason why this burial was so remarkable.

Another reason she was such interesting find is because her remains represent the oldest case of an fatal obstructed labor called a dystocic childbirth. This is when a baby is physically blocked from being able to be pushed from the pelvis.

The remains displayed that one baby had been born, but the other remained in the womb.

Infant bones are very soft and will harden and grow as a baby grows, but since these twins died pretty much at birth, there wouldn’t have been a full fetal skeleton. Soft tissue doesn’t preverse well under normal decomposition. “…since the 1970s, only about 20 cases of pregnant or labouring females (i.e. interred with fetal remains in situ) have been published in the archaeological literature, the vast majority appearing to represent complications due to childbirth” (Death By Twins 23-24).

Diagram of identified and duplicated fetal cranial bones via 'Death by twins' article

Diagram of identified and duplicated fetal cranial bones via ‘Death by twins’ article

There are many techniques that were used to excavate and investigate this burial. Radiocarbon dating was used to find that mom and her children were from the Early Neolithic period. Age of death was estimated using biomarkers on the pelvis.

A deformed pelvis is often cited as the cause for an obstructed birth, but analysis of the skeleton did not show any weirdness, or pathological conditions that would indicate pelvis deformity.

The young mother just barely managed to deliver one of her babies and the other remained inside her. It is likely that the births were prolonged, inferring that she spent the last few hours of her life in great discomfort and fatigued.

Her body placement and positioning in the grave, along with decorative objects that she and the babies were buried with suggests that she, at least, died as a cared for member of society.

To read more about this burial, check out these articles and resources:

Prehistoric Woman’s Heartbreaking Tale Revealed

Original Article in ‘Antiquity’ magazine

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