Ancient skeleton of baby girl shows Stone Age humans practiced gender equality 10,000 years ago

DENVER, Colorado – The ancient skeleton of a little girl provides researchers with evidence that Stone Age humans practiced some form of gender equality 10,000 years ago. A team from the University of Colorado-Denver said the girl’s grave was richly decorated with a giant owl claw, more than 60 pierced shell beads and four pendants.

Nicknamed “Neve”, she is the first example in Europe of a girl receiving a ceremonial burial. The finding shows that her community honored its younger members – and women – in the same way as men. The study authors add that the results suggest that the early Mesolithic hunter-gatherers may have been a more civilized era than previously believed.

“The evolution and development of how early humans buried their dead, as archaeological records reveal, are of tremendous cultural significance,” Anthropologist Professor Jamie Hodgkins said in an academic statement.

Neve was barely 2 months old

After mapping the baby’s DNA, the researchers identified it as belonging to a group on a specific branch of the maternal tree of humanity. Scans of her teeth showed that stress had halted their development 47 and 28 days before birth. After childbirth, the child lived only 40-50 days.

Carbon and nitrogen levels revealed that her mother’s diet likely consisted of plants, berries, nuts, and meat. A closer analysis of the ornaments adorning the child shows the care given to each piece before its burial. Many of the pieces show wear, suggesting that early humans may have passed them on to their children.

Jamie Hodgkins, Principal Investigator and Team at the Italian Grave Discovery Site. (University of Denver)

“There are quite a few human burials before about 14,000 years ago,” says Professor Hodgkins.

“But the last period of the Upper Paleolithic and the first part of the Mesolithic are less well known in terms of funerary practices. Infant burials are particularly rare, so Neve adds important information to help fill this gap.

His delicate remains were fully unearthed from a cave in Liguria, Italy, in 2018.

“The Mesolithic is of particular interest,” said co-lead author Dr Caley Orr.

“It followed the end of the last ice age and represents the last period in Europe where hunting and gathering was the main source of income. It is therefore a very important period for understanding human prehistory.

Redefining the role of women in the ancient past

The team adds that the discovery sheds light on the “seemingly egalitarian funeral treatment” of a female infant. Mortuary practices often provide a window into worldviews and the social structure of past societies.

Children’s funerals show that Neve was regarded with as much love and importance as a male peer. He was granted the same attributes of individual self, moral agency, and eligibility for acceptance.

The authors of the study add that Neve shows that even the youngest women at that time still had “full person” status in this society. Archeology has historically been viewed through a male lens. Professor Hodgkins is concerned that there are many stories that archaeologists may have missed.

“Right now we have the oldest identified female infant burial in Europe,” Hodgkins continues. “Archaeological reports have tended to focus on male stories and roles, and in doing so, have left many people out of the picture. “

“Protein and DNA analyzes allow us to better understand the diversity of personality and human status in the past. Without DNA analysis, this highly decorated infant burial could have been presumed male, ”explains the researcher.

In Western society, archaeologists have historically assumed that leaders and warriors are all or primarily men. However, DNA analyzes have uncovered the existence of Viking warriors, non-binary leaders, and powerful Bronze Age rulers. Finding a burial like Neve’s is a reason to take a more critical look at archaeological past, says Professor Hodgkins.

“It’s about increasing our knowledge of women, but also recognizing that we archaeologists cannot understand the past through a singular prism. We need as diverse a perspective as possible because humans are complex, ”the study authors explain.

Ancient treasure in an Italian cave

Antique infant burial map
Illustration showing the placement of pearls and seashells with the skull. (Credit: University of Denver)

The cave, called Arma Veirana, is a popular attraction for local families. It lies on the southern shore of the Alps. The looters exhibited 12,000-year-old tools that drew the international crew to the area.

They spent two seasons near the entrance collecting stone shards and Neanderthal spearheads dating back more than 50,000 years.

The team also found remains of ancient meals such as the bones of slaughtered wild boars and elk, and pieces of charred fat. Exploring further, Professor Hodgkins and his colleagues came across the pierced seashell pearls.

She was walking the hinged lines back in the lab when the researcher realized they were on something. A few days later, using dental tools and a small paintbrush, the researchers exposed parts of a child’s brain – or the cranial vault.

Hodgkins notes that a series of analyzes have revealed remarkable details at the old burial site. Radiocarbon dating has determined that “Neve” was born approximately 10,000 years ago. Specifically, analysis of proteins and ancient DNA revealed that the infant was a female belonging to a line of European females known as haplogroup U5b2b.

The study in Scientific reports follows the recent discovery of the burial 11,500 years ago of a girl of the same age at Upward Sun River in Alaska.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

James C. Tibbs