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Investigating foetal and perinatal mortality in prehistoric skeletal samples: a case study from a 3000-year-old Pacific Island cemetery site

Authors
Journal
Journal of Archaeological Science
0305-4403
Publisher
Elsevier
Publication Date
Volume
36
Issue
12
Identifiers
DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.09.004
Keywords
  • Infant Mortality
  • Stable Isotopes
  • Perinatal Skeletal Ageing Methods
  • Environmental Stress
  • Pacific Islands
  • Lapita
Disciplines
  • Ecology
  • Geography
  • Medicine

Abstract

Abstract The Teouma skeletal sample from Vanuatu represents one of the few truly colonising populations in the Pacific Islands. Therefore, investigating the factors that may have affected foetal/infant mortality in this population is potentially important for understanding the success of settlement in this region of the world. We investigate whether stable isotope analyses of carbon and nitrogen in conjunction with skeletal ageing techniques, can aid in identifying whether the subadults from Teouma died before or after birth in an attempt to understand the potential threats to foetal and infant survival. Multiple skeletal ageing methods using diaphyseal lengths were used to age the young subadults (n = 7). Using regression-based skeletal ageing methods, four of the individuals were aged at around full-term gestation (37–42 weeks gestation), while the remaining three individuals died preterm. The isotope analyses did not assist in identifying the individuals that survived post-birth because none of the subadults displayed the 2–3‰ trophic increase in δ 15N values expected for a breastfed infant, probably as a result of their young age. However, all of the foetal/perinatal individuals exhibited higher δ 15N values in their bone collagen compared with the adult females of the sample, with two of the individuals demonstrating unusually high δ 15N values. The δ 13C values of the foetuses/perinates did not exhibit the same variation. We explore a number of possible explanations for this elevation of perinatal/foetal δ 15N values and tentatively suggest that this is a result of in utero stress as a consequence of chronic maternal ill-health. The osteological and palaeodemographic evidence supports the assertion that females, foetuses and perinates were susceptible to environmental stress within this colonising population, resulting in early death of the perinatal individuals in addition to early terminations of pregnancy or premature birth possibly caused by infectious and/or metabolic diseases.

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