Afterlife

Look: Ancient grave recasts gender roles in hunter-gatherer societies

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How we die can tell us a lot about how we live.

Ancient burials, in turn, shed light on prehistoric beliefs about ritual, religion, and social hierarchies.

The burials of young children and infants hold special significance: We are given a window into how ancient adults treated the youngest members of their society.

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Now, the 10,000-year-old remains of an infant girl reveal a tumultuous period of humanity’s past.

Writing in the journal Scientific Reports on December 14, they describe her remains as the oldest-known burial of a female infant found in Europe.

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Dominique Meyer image

Her grave was unearthed in the Arma Veriana cave in Italy.

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When she died, the Ice Age was nearing its end. Humans were adjusting to drastic environmental changes.

This was the Mesolithic era, and with the changing climate, there were likely shifting societal concerns, too.

Jamie Hodkins, PhD, CU Denver USAGE RESTRICTIONS

But burial sites dating to the early Mesolithic period are rare.

That scarcity makes this find all the more remarkable.

Nicknamed “Neve,” the infant was surrounded by intricate, carved, shell beads and an ornate claw. Her caretakers may have viewed her as an individual and worthy of respect.

“Child funerary treatment provides important insights into who was considered a person and thereby afforded the attributes of an individual self, moral agency, and eligibility for group membership.”

Hodkins et. al., study authors

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Neve was a little under two months old when she died. She was buried with at least 66 pierced shell beads and four amulets.

Nature Scientific Reports

The beads and amulets are worn looking, so the researchers think the beads were given to the child while she was alive; possibly handed down by relatives.

Neve’s grave shows how children were treated, but it also hints at how females were treated as well.

Nature Scientific Reports

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Older research suggests early hunter-gatherer societies in Europe didn’t decorate the graves of one sex more than the other.

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Neve’s burial adds evidence to suggest female and male members of Mesolithic societies in Europe were considered equals.