March 3, 2011

Childhood and death in Neolithic and Bronze Age Iberia

The reference Andalusian archaeology blog Pileta de Prehistoria mentions these days two papers of at least some interest on infantile burials in Bronze Age La Mancha and in Neolithic Catalonia. Both papers are freely available online in PDF format, however they are, with the exception of the abstract, in Spanish language, what is surely an inconvenience for many readers. In any case:



The spectacular motilla (motte-and-bailey) of El Azuer was mentioned in this blog in December, in a post that I largely used to put these forts in their space-time context.

They are pretty much technical papers with a lot of details on inferred health and other bio details of the infants (and adults) buried in these sites.


Bronze Age La Mancha (El Azuer)

An interesting detail is for instance the presence of some burials in giant jar (pithos) in El Azuer, a Greek cultural borrowing that I thought until now as restricted to El Argar cultural area and that, in El Azuer, underlines how these fortifications of the Manchego semidesert belong fully to the Argarian political area, being probably in their time a marche of the more or less centralized state that must have controlled all SE Iberia from Castelló to Granada and that was strongly influenced (as is obvious in the pithos burial fashion) by Mycenaean Greece.

Nájera-Colino 2010 fig. 18

Above we can observe the mortality curve in El Azuer, expressed as percentage of all deceased people (solid line) and as percentage of death expectations per age segment (dashed line). Instead of absolute ages, age segments are used instead: Infantile I (age: 0-6), Infantile II (age: 6-12), juvenile, adult, mature and senile.

It is quite evident (and confirmed in text) that almost half of all deaths in El Azuer happened among children (49%), mostly very young children (inf. I). Only the mature segment (above 40?) reaches similar mortality ages. Even among survivors of what was without doubt a quite harsh childhood, most died without reaching old age. However they could expect to reach maturity if they had experienced puberty.

The main cause of death among children are infectious and parasitic diseases, stimulated by malnutrition. Diarrhea, still today one of the main causes of infantile death worldwide, is speculated to have been one of the main killers in El Azuer as well but illnesses proper of infancy are also considered, as they usually leave no markings in the skeleton. 44% of the children show signs of ill-health, often until their deaths. 

Impressive air view of El Azuer fortress (from the paper)

Nutritional aspects are analyzed specially in regards to children diet however the presence of several adults in the high protein segment (along with some breastfed children) is highly suggestive of some class differences. If we are to linearly interpret class from the amount of protein intake among adults (what makes some good sense, specially in a rather homogeneous site such as this fort), we can conclude from fig. 20 (page 92) that:
  • 21 adults belong to the low protein segment or low classes
  • 9 adults belong to the middle protein segment or middle classes
  • 5 adults belong to the high protein segment or upper classes
It is easy to imagine that the low classes were servants, the middle classes soldiers (or their wives) and the upper classes aristocrats but we do not know enough of Argarian (proto-Iberian) social structure to be certain.

Excluding the six infancy I deaths in the high protein segment, surely all being breastfed at the moment of their deaths, all other dead children under the age of 6 are females with low protein profiles, probably the malnourished daughters of servants. I count five of them.

Things are a bit more balanced in the infancy II (6-12 y.o.) segment, where most casualties belong to males (5, versus 2 females and 3 unknown) and in some cases to the middle and high protein segments (but all from phase III). Still the apportions are clearly unfavorable for the lower classes.

Detected pathologies are all restricted to infants and, excepting two toddlers, to the low protein segments. So it is easy to conclude that in El Azuer (and probably in all the Argarian area by extension) malnutrition, illness and early death were largely concentrated among the low classes.


Catalan Neolithic

Instead the Catalan (Neolithic) burials describe a quite different picture: only 23% of deaths belong to children (both segments plus perinatal), which is less than half the observed figure for El Azuer. On the other hand most people (46-51%) died in adulthood, with only 10% reaching maturity.

In Catalonia it is also notable the almost total absence of caries, with only one woman showing them in more than one piece and no infants having them at all. Instead several individuals show dental deformations indicating major malnutrition or illness, very possibly the cause of their deaths.

Besides, the populations of the lowlands and the highlands in Baix Llobregat  specifically show quite different nutritional profiles with the latter eating largely meat, allegedly from hunt, which still made a good deal of the diet in the hills.

Honey-colored flint cores (source)
In many cases the burials have valuable grave goods often imported from afar:  honey-colored flint from SE France, obsidian from the Central Mediterranean, jadeite from the Alps and locally extracted variscite. However the presence of grave goods varied a lot along time, being rare in the early Neolithic and increasing in the Chalcolithic (or late Neolithic). The honey-colored flint stone, often found in form of ready-to-work cores (which were imported that way from the mines) or large axes, underline the connections of Chalcolithic Catalonia with the once important Chassey culture (possibly of proto-Ligurian ethnicity), where this beautiful material had become extremely important in the socio-economical structure.

4 comments:

  1. Greetings Maju,

    Very interesting link document Trinidad Najera.

    Thanks.

    Particularly good is the initial discussion regarding the change of the economic system of hunter-gatherers to agriculture and ranching impact on Child Labour at younger ages.

    You know what my views on the emergence of the Neolithic and how it affects the behavior of humans.

    Very interesting also the role of play in children's learning and the role of play in general in ancient societies, and i remember that you comment on this blog a few days ago this issue, the importance of not rejecting the archaeological evidences associated with the game.

    In hunter-gatherer societies older children up to the smallest in the games, usually associated with the work that they play older play. I think in the Neolithic still have a role.

    Integrating play in learning is basic to development of children, and now because of long hours at work parents forget this question.

    Thanks Maju.

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  2. "Particularly good is the initial discussion regarding the change of the economic system of hunter-gatherers to agriculture and ranching impact on Child Labour at younger ages".

    I have read it again (paragraph-hoping, admittedly) and I can't find what exactly is so good about that lengthy introduction.

    I tend to think that it's not so much Neolithic as such but social hierarchization, which is a process that happens after Neolithic, between Neolithic proper and the Bronze Age, what really causes the problems. This hierarchization could not have happened without Neolithic and the accumulation it allows but it is not Neolithic as such, alone, which causes these inequalities and loss of freedom.

    In this sense, we see (in the data) that Neolithic and even Chalcolithic Catalan children were relatively safe from death (and hence probably from abuses), while those of "more advanced" Bronze Age El Azuer suffered death at much higher levels (ironically when life expectancy of adults improved a lot).

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  3. Thanks for the report.

    FWIW, the idiomatic American English word for "caries" is "cavities", with the former pretty much confined to technical works by medical professionals.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Greetings Maju,


    ""I have read it again (paragraph-hoping, admittedly) and I can't find what exactly is so good about that lengthy introduction""

    It is true that in the paper this idea only appears superficially.

    This is my own thought.

    My own reflection it towards because according to on paper there is a high infant mortality rates of children under 12 years, perhaps due to the severe conditions of life to begin work at younger ages.


    ""The main cause of death among children are infectious and parasitic diseases, stimulated by malnutrition""

    I do wonder this may have something to do with the idea expressed above, children from exposure to inappropriate environments for their age are more susceptible to infections.

    ""I tend to think that it's not so much Neolithic as such but social hierarchization, which is a process that happens after Neolithic, between Neolithic proper and the Bronze Age..."

    Sure, when I talk about of Neolithic I want to refer to changes in economic structure resulting from this time, affect on, in later epochs.

    Greetings!!

    ReplyDelete

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