New analysis of child remains unearthed in an Italian cave reveal that they belong to the earliest-known Homo sapiens female infant burial in Europe—a discovery that helps resolve questions about the status of infants and particularly the “personhood” of female infants thousands of years ago.
The baby girl, dubbed “Neve” after a river in the region, was between just 40 and 50 days old when she died a little more than 10,000 years ago. It’s not known what caused her death, and all that’s left now are a few of her tiny bones and seashell beads from a shroud she was wrapped in. An eagle-owl talon, found nearby, appears to have been placed there as a gift.
Archaeologists rarely find the bones of ancient human children, especially the bones of newborns, because they’re often too small and fragile to remain intact over millennia. It’s more common to find the remains of adults, and yet the archaeological record of prehistoric burials has large gaps that cover thousands of years. And when ancient burials of children have been found, it’s usually been impossible to determine their sex because any DNA in their bones has deteriorated.
Neve’s remains, however, are exceptional because they survived more than 10,000 years in the ground and still contained enough DNA for the scientists to analyze, explained University of Colorado, Denver palaeoarchaeologist and National Geographic Explorer Jamie Hodgkins, the lead author of a study of the remains published today in the journal Scientific Reports.
“The number of burials at this time, between about 10,000 and 11,000 years ago, is very, very rare,” says Hodgkins. Few human remains this old have usable DNA, and “it’s in a gap where we don’t have much of anything at all.”
The surviving DNA is important because it helped establish the baby had been a girl; and the researchers argue the care of the burial confirms female babies, and likely male babies, had “personhood” within the group—in other words, they were considered members of their society at birth.
“It suggests to us that personhood, or recognition of individuals within a society, was passed to very young females,” says UC Denver paleoanthropologist Caley Orr, a co-author of the new study, who is married to Hodgkins.
The age when babies were accepted as individuals, and whether girls were treated the same as boys, is a question that scientists aren’t certain of, in part because so little can be learned from the few ancient child burials that have been excavated. But anthropologist Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, who was not involved in the latest research but who studied the earlier burial of a Homo sapiens child in Africa, thinks the interpretation is a reasonable one. “I agree that the evidence implies there was equal treatment of males and females,” he says in an email. “This is consistent with [today’s] egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies.”
Hodgkins and Orr also point to one of the few known burials of a baby the same age as Neve who was buried at almost the same time—about 11,500 years ago—in what’s now Alaska’s Tanana Valley. Ancient DNA confirmed that baby had also been a girl; and that burial, too, showed signs of care and included grave gifts. “This implies that infant personhood inclusive of females has deeper origins in a common ancestral culture, or that it arose in parallel in nearly contemporaneous populations across the planet,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Hodgkins says that archaeology has traditionally been viewed through a male lens, and she worries there are many stories about females that have been missed. “Highly decorated burials were assumed to be male, because we were fitting into this Western European notion that men have status and women don’t,” she says. But recent archaeological finds indicate there were women Viking warriors, Iron Age non-binary leaders, and Bronze Age female rulers. “What’s missing in archaeology is the feminine story,” she says.
For now, Neve’s is the oldest burial of a baby girl found in Europe. But Hodgkins doesn’t expect that to be the case for long: “More and more DNA analysis will be done and we’ll find more and more women in the past,” she says. She also expects greater participation by women in archaeology will bring about change. “If we are only looking at the archaeological record through a narrow personal lens then we are going to miss out on all of the diversity that existed over time…..”
The cave in northwestern Italy where the remains of Neve were found, known as the Arma Veirana, has become famous among scientists who study human evolution. Excavations that began in 2014 reveal it was occupied by both Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) up to 44,000 years ago, and by early modern humans (Homo sapiens) as early as 30,000 years ago. That means the artifacts and remains in the cave chronicle the transition period between the last Neanderthals and the first Homo sapiens – a time that scientists want to know more about.
In 2017 team members were looking for traces of Neanderthals at Arma Veirana when they found the first bones of the Homo sapiens baby. The find was made on the last few days of scheduled fieldwork for the year, and so it wasn’t until the following year that the burial could be fully excavated. By that time Hodgkins knew she was pregnant with a baby girl, which made the excavation especially affecting: “I was moving sediment through the sieve, and I found teeth and these little hand bones,” she says. “It was really heartbreaking to find, because the hand is such an intimate part of the body.”
The team found more than 60 beads and pendants made of two types of seashells that appear to have been sewn onto a covering—now disintegrated—that was wrapped around the infant when she was buried. That indicates someone in the group made a visit to the coast, then about 12 miles away over forested hills, to collect seashells for ornaments, or that they had traded for them. Several decorations have extensive wear marks, and Arizona State University anthropologist Claudine Gravel-Miguel, a co-author of the study, thinks they may have been ornaments that once belonged to other members of the group.
Paleoanthropologist María Martinón-Torres, the director of Spain’s National Center for Research on Human Evolution (CENIAH) in Burgos, says the Arma Veirana burial is “a beautiful example of the way humans interact with the dead, a practice that goes back hundreds of thousands of years and can be documented in both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.”
Martinón-Torres was not involved in the latest study, but led research into the Homo sapiens child buried in Africa about 78,000 years ago—tens of thousands of years before our species arrived in Europe.
She agrees the Arma Veirana find reinforces the idea that human babies were considered members of their societies from birth. “From the early Homo sapiens and Neanderthal periods we have evidence that children had personhood,” she says in an email. “The earliest documented burials in Africa… involve children and a deliberate dedication to the way the body is disposed.”
It seems that infant deaths “before time” could trigger intense feelings in hominids and some primates, Martinón-Torres adds. “This is seen in modern times, but it can be seen also in the mourning of chimpanzees for their dead baby infants.”
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Jamie Hodgkins’s work.Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers working to inspire, educate, and better understand human history and cultures.