Ancient bones reveal ancient tragedy

Angela Lieverse could not help but be torn between being a mother and a scientist as she handled the tiny bones, remains that tell of an ancient tragedy.

"You have no idea how hard it is to look at those little tiny bones—I have kids too—and not get choked up," said Lieverse, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Saskatchewan. "It's an absolutely devastating story."

The tiny bones are nestled among the pelvis and upper leg bones of a young woman who died trying to deliver twins. Her Neolithic community lived near the shore of Lake Baikal, the world's deepest, in southern Siberia. In her time, women either successfully gave birth or all too often died in the attempt.

"Inside the tragedy is a compelling story and very personal window into life—and death—almost 8,000 years ago," Lieverse said. "It's really a remarkable find."

Lieverse worked with colleagues Andrzej Weber from the University of Alberta and Vladimir Bazaliiskii in Russia to examine the skeletons. Exhumed from a hunter-gatherer cemetery, they date from the middle Holocene period some 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. The researchers' findings are published in the journal Antiquity.

While death from childbirth has been quite common—the researchers cite one study of pre-Columbian mummies that put it at 14 per cent—there are few examples in the archeological record. This could be because the women's communities separated mothers from their deceased infants before burial, or simply because the delicate remains of the unborn didn't survive the eons. Evidence of twins, which occur in one to three per cent of modern births, is exceptionally rare.

"This is not only one of the oldest archaeologically documented cases of death during childbirth, but also the earliest confirmed set of human twins in the world," Lieverse explained.

Life in the woman's world would have been typical of hunter-gatherer societies of the time. Her clothing was decorated with marmot teeth and she would have been familiar with pottery. The hunters among her community worked stone into tools and used bows and arrows to harvest game. Fish and freshwater seals from Lake Baikal would have also been on the menu.

The researchers estimate the woman would have been in her early twenties when she went into labour. But there was a complication. The first baby was breech—coming out feet first—a dangerous condition complicated by the presence of the twin. While the first baby was partially delivered, at some point there was a problem. Perhaps its head was entrapped or the twins were interlocked, their chins hooked on each other, but the delivery was obstructed.

"Obstructed labour accounted for as many as 70 per cent of maternal deaths, even in the late 20th century," Lieverse said. "Without the skills, experience and technology of modern medical practitioners, it would have been a virtual death sentence for all three individuals."

In the end, the young woman would have succumbed to infection, bleeding or exhaustion, taking her twins with her to the grave.

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