Ancient Twins: A Prehistoric Grave In Siberia May Be Earliest Example Of Death During Childbirth

When scientists reexamined an ancient Siberian grave, they were not expecting to find the remains of three bodies. Inside the ancient resting place was the skeleton of a mother and her two children. It is believed that all three died during childbirth some 7,700 years ago.

The scientists published their findings in the February edition of Antiquity, an archaeology journal. In the paper, the researcher state that the grave holds evidence of the earliest known set of twins. Unfortunately, it is also the oldest known death by obstructed labor, or dystocia.

According to Huffington Post, the grave was first excavated in 1997. It is located in a “prehistoric cemetery called Lokomotiv, near present-day Irkutsk in Russia.” The cemetery got its name because it was exposed when the base of a hill was being carved out for the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1897.

The grave and cemetery date back to the Neolithic Era.

When it was first excavated, it was believed that the mother had died bearing only one child. A recent reexamination found a second set of bones in the pelvic region. The woman was pregnant with twins.

Dr. Angela Lieverse, an archaeologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, studies ancient hunter-gatherer communities. She works with the Baikal-Hokkaido Archaeology Project and began reexamining some of the remains from Lokomotiv in 2012. When she pulled out the remains for the mother, believed to be 20 to 25 years-old, she began to find duplicates of some of the bones. Lieverse spoke with Live Science, admitting she was surprised at her discovery.

“Within 5 minutes, I said to my colleague, ‘Oh my gosh; these are twins.'”

The remains of the ancient twins were found in the pelvic area of the mother and between her thighs. Lieverse believes that one of the twins may have been breech (with its feet facing downward) and had been partially delivered. The other twin remained in the womb, with its head downward in the correct position.

Twins tend to be “invisible in the archaeological record,” making this discovery quite remarkable. Finding evidence of a death during childbirth is rare as well, though it would have been common in prehistory. Often times, when a woman died during her pregnancy, the infant would be cut from her womb as a way to prevent a “coffin birth” (where the gasses of a decomposing body push the baby from the mother’s body.) An infant’s bones are quite fragile and usually decompose, another reason why finding proof of a maternal death is rare.

One ancient grave, however, does not give much insight to how this hunter-gatherer community viewed twins or death during childbirth.

“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,” Lieverse said.

Siberia offers up discoveries of ancient eras from time to time, including the remains of a 9,000 year-old Bison mummy.

A single grave in Siberia has given substantial evidence of ancient twins and of death during childbirth. Why do you think twin are almost invisible in the archaeological records?

[Image via Huffington Post/Vladimir Bazaliiskii]