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Canadian finds 7,700-year-old skeletons of twins in Siberia

By Megan Hamilton     Feb 11, 2015 in Science
Irkutsk - The recently exhumed skeletons of a young mother and her twins who died around 7,700 years ago are the oldest set of confirmed twins ever discovered, says the bio-archaeologist who discovered them near Lake Baikal in Siberia.
All those years ago, a young woman believed to be between the ages of 20-25 died while trying to give birth to twins, but one of the babies was in a breech position, and that blocked the birth of the second child, CTV News reports.
When Angela Lieverse made the discovery, she found it exciting — but also tragic.
"The fact that the first baby came breech was just a death sentence for all three of them. It makes me really, really sad ... it's hard, especially infants and children, to look at their skeletons ... and not get choked up," she said. "There was probably nothing they could do for her."
Lieverse discovered the grave in an ancient Siberian cemetery of 2012, but it wasn't until this month that her research was published in the journal Antiquity. Her colleagues Andrzej Weber, from the University of Alberta, and Vladimir Bazaliiskii in Russia, worked alongside her.
Scientists have always assumed that twins existed in ancient times, after all, between one and three percent of modern births result in twins, but up until now the evidence for twins in prehistoric times has only been circumstantial, she noted.
"It's virtually impossible to say for sure there were twins in the past," she said. Archaeologists have found infants buried together in the same grave, but this didn't prove the existence of twins, she added.
The cemetery is partially covered by city development, so it hasn't been fully excavated. The cemetery was, in fact, dubbed Lokomotiv because it was unearthed at the base of a hill that was carved out during the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1897, Live Science reports.
So far, all of the 101 bodies that have been exhumed there were members of a nomadic hunting and gathering community that roamed the area some 8,000-7,000 years ago. Finding evidence of transient hunter-gatherer communities who buried their dead in cemeteries is very rare, but archaeologists have documented this practice in several sites in northeastern Asia.
Lieverse, who is with the University of Saskatchewan, studies these communities with the Baikal-Hokkaido Archaeology Project. In 2012, she was examining some of the bones found at Lokomotiv, which were in storage at Irkutsk State University. It was originally thought that the young woman in the grave had only one child with her. When Lieverse pulled out the box of fetal remains, she realized that there were duplicates of the fragile, tiny bones.
"Within 5 minutes, I said to my colleague, 'Oh my gosh; these are twins," Lieverse told Live Science.
The fetal bones were arrayed within the mother's pelvic region and between her thighs. It wasn't long after analyzing the placement of the bones that Lieverse was able to reconstruct a traumatic childbirth situation that even today, with modern medicine and the option of a C-section, would have been risky for this mother and her infants.
It looks as if one of the twins may have been in a breech position, with its feet pointed down, and was partially delivered, she said. The second infant was position with its head down and it likely remained in the womb. Lieverse thinks the breech baby was either trapped or locked with its sibling, and that led to a fatal obstructed birth.
"It might be a bit circumstantial, but I think it's quite strong," Lieverse said of her interpretation. She also said that there's been little postmortem shifting of the bones, and in the young mother, all of the bones are in place, even her ribs and the tiny bones in her hands.
Archaeologists don't know, based on just this one burial, what this community of hunter-gatherers thought of twins or death during childbirth, Live Science reports. The mother was buried lying on her back. This is pretty typical of the graves at Lokomotiv, Lieverse said.
"It suggests either they didn't know she had twins or that dying during childbirth wasn't so out of the realm of possibility that it would be considered unique," she said.
The young mother likely either bled to death, or died of infection or exhaustion caused by childbirth. It's also likely that she didn't know she was having twins Lieverse told The Star Phoenix.
"It tells us a bit about the risks associated with childbirth and specifically births involving twins," she said. "We know that up to 15 percent of women of child-bearing age died in childbirth in ancient times. We hardly ever see it archaeologically. There's probably only 20 to 25 cases published."
This young mother and her community of hunter-gatherers lived near the shore of Lake Baikal in southern Siberia, where they made stone tools and brought bows and arrows to the hunt. The clothes she was found with were decorated with marmot teeth, and this suggests she lived a typical existence for the time.
Lieverse returns almost every year to this region to work in the field and examine collections. This neolithic cemetery is rich in information, providing a glimpse into an ancient world.
"We're building a big puzzle and we each have a piece we're working on," Lieverse said. Increasingly, archaeologists are beginning to study the lives experiences of specific groups of people living in a society, she noted.
"People weren't really looking for things like this until the 1970s or so, until the advent of what we call feminist archaeology, when we stopped looking at ancient cultures as homogeneous groups and started looking at women in particular or different identity groups," she said. "It's relevant because it's part of a growing movement to look at individuals within a group ... Now that we are looking for it, we will find more women who died during childbirth. The evidence will always be scarce, though, because it is almost never preserved."
Life was vastly different for humans 7,700 years ago. If this young woman could speak, what would she tell us?
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