Europe’s earliest infant female burial sheds light on Mesolithic funerary practices

Radiocarbon dating revealed the child, nicknamed 'Neve’, lived around 10,000 years ago

Jamie Hodgkins, lead researcher, and team at the burial discovery site in Italy. Image: Jamie Hodgkins.

At the cave site of Arma Veirana, in the foothills of the Ligurian Alps of northwestern Italy, researchers have uncovered the earliest-known female infant burial in the European archaeological record.

Richly decorated and dated to around 10,000 years ago, the discovery sheds new light on the social status and funerary treatment of the youngest members of early Mesolithic hunter-gatherer society.

As reported in a study newly published in Scientific Reports, the first two excavation seasons at Arma Veirana took place in 2017 at the mouth of the cave. They revealed 50,000-year-old stone tools and cut-marked faunal fragments associated with Neanderthal activity.

Exploring the deeper recesses of the cave, the team unearthed pierced shell beads and, several days later, a cranial vault fragment. Excavations in 2018 recovered the few preserved delicate skeletal remains of a deliberately interred infant.

Hodgkins, a palaeoarchaeologist and National Geographic explorer, pictured here with her daughter at the cave site in Italy. Image: David Strait.

Radiocarbon dating revealed the child, nicknamed ‘Neve’ after a river in the region, lived around 10,000 years ago, during the early Mesolithic period that followed the Last Ice Age. Burials from this era are exceptionally rare.

Subsequent ancient DNA and proteomic analysis determined Neve was female and related to the U5b2b haplogroup – a maternal lineage that dominated hunter-gatherer societies in Mesolithic Europe.

Neve’s cause of death could not be identified. However, virtual histology – a technique measuring enamel formation – revealed they died between 40 and 50 days after birth. Episodes of stress affecting the foetus or mother around 47 to 28 days before birth were also indicated by accentuated lines in Neve’s prenatal enamel.

Stable isotope analyses of the remains revealed Neve’s mother had consumed a terrestrial diet, as was typical of Mesolithic groups in the region.

Fragments of Neve’s humerus were found in close association with perforated marine snail shell beads. Image: University of Colorado, Denver.

The burial had been richly adorned with at least 66 perforated ornamental marine snail shell beads and three perforated pendants crafted from polished sea clam fragments. Found in a line over her upper thorax and right shoulder, the paper suggests they might have been sewn onto a hood or blanket.

In addition to this, the presence of snail shell beads over Neve’s abdomen has been interpreted as the remains of a vestment around her waist.

An eagle-owl claw was also found in association with the burial, and may have been placed as a gift.

Most of the ornaments show signs of wear, indicating they belonged to other individuals before their internment.

Pierced pendants made from the sea clam Glycmeris sp. Image: David Strait / University of Colorado, Denver.

This discovery is so important as it sheds light on the poorly-understood funerary rites afforded to infants in early Mesolithic Europe. The great level of care evidenced in the burial suggests that female children – and likely male – were attributed agency and ‘personhood’.

‘There’s a bias to the archaeological record that focuses on male stories and roles,’ said Jamie Hodgkins, the study’s lead author.

‘Protein and DNA analyses are allowing us to better understand the diversity of human personhood and status in the past. Without DNA analysis, this highly decorated infant burial could possibly have been assumed male.’

The research was an international collaboration between the Universities of Colorado, Denver; Genoa; Bologna; Montreal; Washington; Ferrara; Tübingen, and the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University.