Evolution of Personhood: Earliest Adorned Female Infant Burial in Europe Reveals Significant Insights

The mouth of the Arma Veirana cave, a site in the Ligurian mountains of northwestern Italy. Credit: Dominique Meyer

Ten thousand years ago, just after the last Ice Age, a group of hunter-gatherers buried an infant girl in an Italian cave. They entombed her with a rich selection of their treasured beads and pendants, and an eagle-owl talon, signaling their grief, and showing that even the youngest females were recognized as full persons in their society. The excavations and analysis of the discovery are published this week in Nature Scientific Reports and offers insight into the early Mesolithic period, from which few recorded burials are known. Claudine Gravel-Miguel, postdoctoral researcher with the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University (ASU) and coauthor on the paper, performed the analysis of the ornaments, which includes over 60 pierced shell beads and four shell pendants.

Mortuary practices offer a window into the worldviews and social structure of past societies. Child funerary treatment provides important insights into who was considered a person and afforded the attributes of an individual self, moral agency, and eligibility for group membership. The seemingly “egalitarian” funerary treatment of this infant female, who the team nicknamed “Neve,” shows that as early as 10,000 years ago in Western Europe, even the youngest females were recognized as full persons in their society.

“The evolution and development of how early humans buried their dead as revealed in the archaeological record has enormous cultural significance,” says Jamie Hodgkins, ASU doctoral graduate and paleoanthropologist at the University of Colorado Denver.

The excavation

Arma Veirana, a cave in the Ligurian pre-Alps of northwestern Italy, is a popular spot for local families to visit. Looters also discovered the site, and their digging exposed the late Pleistocene tools that drew researchers to the area.

The research team started surveying the site in 2015 and discovered the remains during the last week of the 2017 field season. The team of project coordinators includes Italian collaborators Fabio Negrino, University of Genoa, and Stefano Benazzi, University of Bologna, as well as researchers from the University of Montreal, Washington University, University of Ferrara, University of Tubingen, and the Institute of Human Origins.

Illustration showing the placement of beads and shells along with the cranium. Credit: Claudine Gravel-Miguel

The first two excavation seasons were spent near the mouth of the cave, exposing stratigraphic layers that contained tools over 50,000 years old typically associated with Neandertals in Europe (Mousterian tools). They also found the remains of ancient meals such as the cut-marked bones of wild boars and elk and bits of charred fat. In addition, they found stone tools that were much more recent and that had likely been eroding from deeper inside the cave. To better understand the stratigraphy of the cave and document its occupation history, the team opened new sections further inside the cave in 2017. As the team explored this new section, they began to unearth pierced shell beads, which Hodgkins examined more carefully back in the lab.

A few days after they found the first bead, one of the excavators uncovered a small piece of the infant’s cranial vault.

“I was excavating in the adjacent square and remember looking over and thinking ‘that’s a weird bone,’” says Gravel-Miguel. “It quickly became clear that not only we were looking at a human cranium, but that it was also of a very young individual. It was an emotional day.”

Using dental tools and a small paint brush, researchers spent that week and the following field season to carefully expose the whole skeleton, which was adorned with articulated lines of pierced shell beads.

“The excavation techniques are state-of-the-art and leave no doubt to the associations of the materials with the skeleton,” said Curtis Marean, who was not involved in the study. Marean is associate director of the Institute of Human Origins and Foundation Professor with the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at ASU.

Important changes in human prehistory

In a series of analyses coordinated across multiple institutions and numerous experts, the team uncovered critical details about the ancient burial. Radiocarbon dating determined that the child lived 10,000 years ago, and amelogenin protein analysis and ancient DNA revealed that the infant was a female belonging to a lineage of European women known as the U5b2b haplogroup.

“There’s a decent record of human burials before around 14,000 years ago,” said Hodgkins. “But the latest Upper Paleolithic period and earliest part of the Mesolithic are more poorly known when it comes to funerary practices. Infant burials are especially rare, so Neve adds important information to help fill this gap.”

“The Mesolithic is particularly interesting,” said coauthor Caley Orr, ASU doctoral graduate and paleoanthropologist and anatomist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “It followed the end of the final Ice Age and represents the last period in Europe when hunting and gathering was the primary way of making a living. So, it’s a really important time period for understanding human prehistory.”

Detailed virtual histology, or study of the tissue and structure, of the infant’s teeth showed that she died 40 to 50 days after birth and that she experienced stress that briefly halted the growth of her teeth 47 days and 28 days before she was born. Carbon and nitrogen analyses of the teeth revealed that the baby’s mother had been nourishing the infant in her womb on a land-based diet.

The child as a member of the community

Gravel-Miguel performed an analysis of the ornaments adorning the infant, which demonstrated the care invested in each piece and showed that many of the ornaments exhibited wear that proves they were passed down to the child from group members. The details of this research—along with further results—are the focus of a separate article, currently under review.

Citing a similar burial of two infants dating to 11,500 years ago at Upward Sun River, Alaska, Hodgkins said the funerary treatment of Neve suggests that the recognition of infant females as full persons has deep origins in a common ancestral culture that was shared by peoples who migrated into Europe and those who migrated to North America. Or it may have arisen in parallel in populations across the planet.

Reference: “An infant burial from Arma Veirana in northwestern Italy provides insights into funerary practices and female personhood in early Mesolithic Europe” by Jamie Hodgkins, Caley M. Orr, Claudine Gravel-Miguel, Julien Riel-Salvatore, Christopher E. Miller, Luca Bondioli, Alessia Nava, Federico Lugli, Sahra Talamo, Mateja Hajdinjak, Emanuela Cristiani, Matteo Romandini, Dominique Meyer, Danylo Drohobytsky, Falko Kuester, Geneviève Pothier-Bouchard, Michael Buckley, Lucia Mancini, Fabio Baruffaldi, Sara Silvestrini, Simona Arrighi, Hannah M. Keller, Rocío Belén Griggs, Marco Peresani, David S. Strait, Stefano Benazzi and Fabio Negrino, 14 December 2021, Scientific Reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-02804-z

The research, excavation, and analysis were made possible with funding from The Wenner-Gren Foundation, Leakey Foundation, National Geographic Society Waitt Program, Hyde Family Foundations, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme, and the Max Planck Society.

AnthropologyArchaeologyArizona State University
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  • ken

    Caring and loving infants and children is a natural instinctive trait of all of the ape family, why are articles written as if scientists seem to be suprised when they find care has been attached to the buriel of a child. it feels disgusting that modern scientists look upon our ancient forebears with such disdain.

    • Johnny B Good

      I noticed the same. As if though all our history has only been filled with barbaric acts and no human kindness whatsoever. Modern folks are not as enlightened as they’d like to think.

  • Nishatro Paula Sanghera

    My thoughts exactly….it’s a natural instinct, hardwired into intelligent beings to love & care for our babies.Many of us instinctively recognise a fetus as a human, giving it person hood from when a pregnancy is discovered at about 3 months despite modern’experts’ not accepting that in some cases.Our ancient ancestors surely evolved with this idea extremely early on because of the worship of the Mother even when the process of conception was barely understood.

  • Lewis Meyer

    This is amazing. Someone must have developed a reliable dating system and not told the rest of us. Current dating systems are shot through with subjectivism and pre-conceptions. Yet people, even scientists who should know better just seem to adopt them. Gullibility is no help to science.

  • Wayne

    What I find irksome about this research is the conclusion that these burial rights price anything about the status of women in early human societies. Our assumptions regarding the meaning of objects at burial sites are speculative. Perhaps infants had a different social status than adults or totems were buried with children for reasons that did not apply to adults. These conclusions appear to be confirmation biases rather than facts.

    • Clyde Spencer

      I agree! All too commonly researchers interpret their material findings in the context of a modern frame of reference. Rather than speculate, it would be more honest to simply report what they find.

  • Robert J Kerian

    Note that the author is surprised that they buried a ‘female’ baby with such care. A person needs to read social science articles understanding that it’s probably written by a woke feminist with an agenda.

  • Gerold

    Many modern cultures don’t name a baby until a few months after birth, and if the child dies before reaching personhood the body is simply discarded on the rubbish heap.

    Clearly this Mesolithic hunter/gatherer culture had a more inclusive view. That’s what these archaeologists are saying.

  • Gerold

    Many modern cultures don’t name a baby until a few months after birth, and if the child dies before reaching personhood the body is simply discarded on the rubbish heap.

    Clearly this Mesolithic hunter/gatherer culture had a more inclusive view. That’s what these archaeologists are saying. And unlike the anti-female patriarchal culture imported to Europe from the Middle East, girls and women were valued.

  • Giselle

    So sad. I can’t think of anything worse than losing a baby. I hope the parents are with her now.

  • Mahree

    Maybe you are interpreting the article in defense which can cloud the meaning of the actual findings. I’m just guessing but I didn’t take offense. How many babies have been found dating back this far yet adorned in such a way? I would think not many. Also the fact that it was female when males seemed to be revered more than females in other discoveries. Our country has become so on edge with everything even things that should not pose conflict. It is really unhealthy. “As within,so without” the world must begin to heal. Each individual must start looking inside for the problems outside. We are all just energy & this web of energy which connects us all to all life forms has to change from negative to positive & that begins with each individual person & what we send out into the web. What we do to the web we do to ourselves.

    • Clyde Spencer

      As this is a rare event, an objective observer would entertain alternative hypotheses that incorporate the fact of the rarity. For example, this might have been the daughter of the leaders of the tribe. Or, it might have been a ritual sacrifice. The authors are extrapolating from a single event to a general case that has militant feminist overtones.

      The way that the Scientific Method works is for a researcher to put forward their findings and conclusions so that it may be reviewed for accuracy and logical consistency. It isn’t just about being “online.” It is how science works! Being critical is not the same thing as being “hostile.”

  • Jacqueline

    So unfortunate that even a science based site is subjected to the same hostile, aggressive comments that are so prevalent online. I had expected a more thoughtful civilized debate from the readership of a science web site. I really do believe our society is swiftly slipping back into a more ignorant, intolerant, violent mode. The Dark Ages 2.0 Our thin veneer of civilization sure didn’t last very long.

  • BananaBoat

    I think it’s finding proof of humans loving their children that’s the amazing part. Not to mention that it’s lasted 10,000 years. Everyone past and present has loved some way or another, and finding physical evidence of it is always amazing.

  • Leslie

    I assumed the special attention to the infant having an adorned grave despite being female was due to some noticed trend, though I can’t say that’s so with any confidence. Infant mortality rate was much higher in those times though, so I don’t think it strange at all to think a baby with an adorned grave unusual.

    I’m confused as to how people see the article as feminist at all. If anything, I wouldn’t automatically assume women and girls weren’t valued same as men and boys just because our culture is that way. Sure, that mindset started somewhere, but it isn’t an innate trait.

  • Neve

    I don’t find any of the commentary on this article “hostile” as such. They do come across thoughtful and civilized to me. I’m not seeing “aggressive” in these comments at all & have enjoyed the different observations & discussions on these. Great to see critical thinking still alive & pumping & hope this kind of engagement with scientific articles is never stifled out entirely.

  • Cassandra

    We don’t know how or why this very young child died. We don’t why it’s grave was adorned. Several theories could be extrapolated from this, sacrifice, a child that couldn’t be another mouth to feed in hard times, it’s mother died in childbirth and couldn’t feed the child or maybe it was a much loved and wanted child that didn’t make it long on this world, perhaps non of those things. We know nothing other than a female baby died and was buried in a shell adorned grave that is something of a rarity find for the times this child lived as we haven’t found others like it. Maybe if we look harder we will find more across the world. We have little knowledge of these peoples hearts, how they thought or felt so we shouldn’t put our modern ideals on to them. Just my thoughts and opinions.

  • Susa Jordan

    Anthropologists really do seem to live in the past, a pun,yes, but the idea of a female infant NOT having worth in society is a recent one; during times of global changes or cataclysmic events, nomadic humans or hunter-gatherers depended heavily upon the health of the female members of their society. Without healthy females there is no society as the birth rate plummets and every female born is a new hope for that group of humanity. 3.3 million years ago, Australopithecus gracies, a group of hominids which preceded Australopithecus robustus, were almost bottle-necked into extinction due to the female and infant mortality rate during childbirth; this group of hominids were not completely standing erect, and females were fed first, females chose the mate as they had to decide which attributes they might actually require to make it through childbirth and to give birth to a healthy living offspring. A large skull and a wide-hipped male was not in the best interests of a successful birth. Males knew this and were honored to “sire” with a female. Anthropologists seem to forget this period of our human origins in South East Central Africa but without these choices, and certain knowledge that even smaller-brained hominids grasped without difficulty, it is hard to believe that only 10000 years ago they are amazed that a female infant was buried with such honor. In conclusion, if it was not for Australopithecus gracies we wouldn’t even BE HERE. Sad, isn’t it? Susa

    • Clyde Spencer

      “… females were fed first, females chose the mate …”

      How do you know that those claims are true?

  • reyhan

    thanks alot of information

  • LiveToLearn

    I agree with Mahree. There is nothing sexist about this article. As stated, there have Only been 2 other infant burials, of near this time period, found. In Alaska.
    To find similar, infant, burials, of the same period…. World’s apart, is amazing. Regardless of the sex.
    What intrigues me is that, from what has been discovered, this was an everyday living cave. Where else has modern man discovered graves among the living quarters of neanderthal/Mesolithic people’s? Graves were given a sacred place of their own, were they not?

  • Lerpracrer

    There’s no such a thing as “evolution of personhood”. If the found is related to humans, then fully personhood is present. Btw,there are humans(personhood) or non-humans (no personhood).Sub-humans? They exist only in the imagination of some “propagandists” and in the “stories” these propagandists tell against the evidence itself.

    • Lerpracrer

      “If the find is related to humans…”

  • Cynthia Binder

    History, living are here,there…dead are decaying…a.forest. a heaven or? The past is no different. Not that ago…. like millions of years…decay- grand canyon ex-spam- ble,findings are History. Live learn n changed? Or repeats? Atleast they did not have researchers n governments “””all””” up in daily life. Peace be with you 🙏 earthlings 👽