Science

CU Researchers Become Parents as They Help Uncover Ancient Infant Burial

Jamie Hodgkins brought her child with her to the excavation.
Jamie Hodgkins brought her child with her to the excavation. David Strait
During the second trimester of her pregnancy, Jamie Hodgkins and her research team uncovered an artifact that held particular meaning for Hodgkins at the time: an ancient female infant burial.

Hodgkins is a paleoanthropologist and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver. Her husband, Caley Orr, was a part of that team; he's a paleoanthropologist and anatomist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. The couple had been exploring Arma Veirana, a cave in Liguria, Italy, since 2015, working with researchers including Fabio Negrino from the University of Genoa, who held the permit for the cave. Their goal was to learn more about the origins of modern humans and their migrations.

Over the first two years, Hodgkins hiked to the cave each day. But because of her pregnancy, during the 2017 expedition she spent most of her time in the lab examining pieces after they’d been excavated by team members. Among these artifacts were several pierced shell beads, indicating there was something significant intact in the cave. When they realized that something was a burial, even Hodgkins made the trip back to the cave. But that realization came on the last day of their excavation, so the team would have to wait until 2018 to learn more.

When they returned to the cave, Hodgkins and Orr brought their six-month-old daughter along. By the time the team uncovered the remains, their child was already older than the ancient baby when she died. Analysis of teeth recovered from the burial indicate she only lived for about forty to fifty days.

“People have really related to this find on a very human level, and that's been kind of gratifying,” Orr says. “There was a lot of heaviness to the excavation, and a lot of us really were emotionally affected by the process.”

The team named the infant Neve by accident. On a specimen bag, Orr misspelled Neva, the river by the cave, as Neve. When Negrino noticed the misspelling, he teared up: Neve means "snow" in Italian, and he thought it was a beautiful name.

“The discovery of this infant at the time my child was developing in my womb, and the full excavation of Neve after the birth of my daughter, are certainly intimately linked for me,” Hodgkins wrote in a blog on Simple Beginnings. “Though I assume my emotions over the death of Neve are not as strong as the grief her group must have felt, I have cried and grieved over Neve’s remains, especially as I sat recovering the tiny tubes of her hand bones. Neve’s story is meaningful on many levels.”
click to enlarge Europe's earliest female infant burial was found in an Italian cave. - DAVID STRAIT
Europe's earliest female infant burial was found in an Italian cave.
David Strait
Part of that meaning derives from how rare the discovery was: This is the oldest female child burial to be found in Europe. There aren’t many well-documented findings from the Early Mesolithic period when Neve was born, about 10,000 years ago, Orr explains. During that period, the glaciers were receding and the world was warming after the Ice Age, so modern humans were undergoing significant adaptations.

“The chances of anyone being preserved are really tiny,” Hodgkins says. “The truth is it’s a lot of luck.” Pressing that luck was the location of the burial site, flanked by areas that had been eroded and close enough to the surface that people walking in the cave had already partially crushed the skeleton. If they hadn't found Neve when they did, Orr says, the remains might have been destroyed within a century.

Buried with Neve were over sixty of the pierced shell beads that had originally clued the team to a potentially valuable discovery. Among them were four unique shell pendants and an eagle-owl talon; based on attempts to re-create these items, the team recognized that they would have been labor-intensive to make. Because the cave is inland, they would have been acquired through a long journey or trade, giving them extra value. The amount of wear on the beads showed that they'd been worn by other members of the group and then passed down to the baby, much as important family heirlooms are buried with bodies in the modern age.

“The amount of grave goods that were bestowed upon her shows that they recognized her as one of their group members, even though she was only two months old,” Hodgkins notes. “She belonged to them, and they considered her to be a person, and they gave her a proper burial.”

While Mesolithic burial practices varied around Europe, there are no discernible differences between how males and females were buried. That indicates some amount of gender equity, at least in terms of burials. Along with information about how society at that time thought about babies, particularly female babies, discoveries about the mother tugged at Hodgkins’s heart.

“​​What's unique about this is that because of the cross sections of the teeth, we can surmise a bit more not only about the baby that we found, but about the mother who carried her,” Hodgkins explains. “We can kind of recognize the struggle of the mother.”

The team found stress lines on the teeth, indicating two disruptions while the baby was in utero that resulted in her teeth ceasing to grow, then growth resuming once the stress passed. Hodgkins says those disruptions could have been caused by starvation, physiological stress, illness or injury of Neve's mother.

The research team published an open-access paper about the discovery in Scientific Reports on December 14; the artifacts are permanently stored at the University of Genoa. Because of COVID and issues getting permits to continue the excavation, the couple hasn’t further examined the cave for a couple of years, but they plan to return in 2023.

For now, they hope that word of Neve's discovery continues to resonate.

Concludes Orr: “Parents, and mothers in particular, I think, can really relate to it in a way that's been really pretty amazing to see."
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Catie Cheshire is Westword's editorial fellow. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire