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"Death by Twins" article in Russian newspaper by Dr. Angela Lieverse, with Dr. Tatiana Nomokonova

July 11, 2013

Dr. Angela Lieverse, with the help of Dr. Tatiana Nomokonova (translation) and Alena (journalist), have an article entitled "Death by Twins" that appeared in the Russian newspaper below.

English text "Death by Twins: A 7000 Year Old Tragedy is Re-discovered in Irkutsk"

Almost 7000 years ago in Irkutsk, a young woman struggled during childbirth. The baby was in a breech (feet first) position and could not be delivered. Both the young mother and her partially born infant died, being buried together in a cemetery overlooking the Angara River. That cemetery, Lokomotiv, later became encompassed by the city of Irkutsk, and was eventually excavated (in the 1980s and 1990s) by Vladimir Ivanovich Bazaliiskii of the Irkutsk State University. The cemetery has revealed many archaeological treasures, as well as the well-preserved skeletons of over 100 individuals; of these, perhaps the most poignant is the skeleton of the young mother.

When the young mother's grave was excavated by Bazaliiskii and his team in 1997, the infant remains located between her thighs and within her pelvic basin were collected and catalogued as well (Figure 1). Osteological examinations revealed that the woman was between 20 and 25 years old when she died. The infant bones were consistent in size and develop with those of a near-term fetus or newborn baby. It seemed to be a classic case of death during childbirth.

If this had been the end of the story, it would have been noteworthy enough. Scientists presume that death during pregnancy and childbirth was common in the past, with some studies suggesting that as many as 14% of ancient women died from complications related to parturition. Despite this, in fact there are remarkably few examples of childbirth-related death documented from the archaeological record. One of the reasons for this is that cases of death due to pregnancy or childbirth can only be observed and recorded if the mother is buried together with her unborn (or partially born) child. All other cases-where only the mother or only the child die, or where the unborn child is removed from the mother's body prior to burial (as was done in ancient Rome, for example)-are essentially invisible to archaeologists. Of the few archaeological cases of childbirth-related death that have been documented from around the world, the vast majority date to the last 3000 years. The young mother from Lokomotiv, on the other hand, lived and died almost 7000 years ago.

But a dead mother and her child are only part of the story. In 2012, Dr. Angela Lieverse from the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, was examining the Lokomotiv remains yet again. As a biological anthropologist, Lieverse has traveled to Irkutsk many times in the last 15 years and has studied Neolithic and Bronze Age skeletons from numerous Baikal-area cemeteries. While studying the bones of the young mother, she decided to look at the infant remains again, this time in more detail. Suddenly, and completely unexpectedly, she began to find duplicate bones, most representing parts of the skull. Being more or less identical in size and development, this duplication could only mean one thing: twins (Figure 2).

While Lieverse was not present at Lokomotiv when Bazaliiskii excavated the young mother in 1997, she has worked with him, using photographs and plan maps, to better understand the circumstances of the twin's unsuccessful birth. The positions of the infants' limb and skull bones indicate that the first baby presented in a breech (feet first) position and was partially delivered, while the second baby presented in the more common (and less risky) head-down position. Giving birth to twins, even today, can be quite perilous, particularly if one or both babies are breech (occurring at least 40% of the time). The situation can be further complicated if the first infant is breech and the second is head-down, as was the case for our young Lokomotiv mother, because the two babies can become inter-locked, chin-on-chin. Although interlocked twins are rare-and indeed we cannot prove that the Lokomotiv twins were interlocked-the situation is a virtual death sentence for both the mother and the babies, as neither child can be delivered, dead or alive. In our Lokomotiv case, all we can say for certain is that the mother partially delivered the first twin in a breech position and that all three individuals died.

Regardless of the details of the unsuccessful birth, the skeletal remains indicate, quite definitively, that the young Lokomotiv mother was pregnant with twins and carried them to full (or near-full) term before their untimely death. Human twins and multiples have become more common in modern times, in part reflecting advances in reproductive assistance technologies, but were undoubtedly present in the past as well. Despite this assumption, confirmed evidence of twins in the archaeological record is extremely rare. With very few exceptions, most reported cases of ancient human twins are based only on indirect evidence, namely the discovery of two infant skeletons buried together in the same grave, sometimes with their legs or arms partially intertwined. Whether the babies in those cases were actually siblings, let along twins, is impossible to say for certain. One example, involving pre-contact (<1500 AD) Native American infants from the US state of Indiana, has since been disproven through the analysis of ancient DNA. In that case, although the babies were originally presumed to be twins, DNA analyses indicated that they were not siblings at all. In fact, twins in antiquity can only ever be confirmed if both individuals die (and are buried) together and if their close familial relationship can be proven with DNA analyses or skeletal positioning (such as being recovered from the same pelvic cavity). Using these strict criteria, only one other set of confirmed human twins has been documented from the archaeological record, a relatively recent post-contact (>1600 AD) case from the US state of South Dakota. In contrast to that case, the Lokomotiv twins are considerably more ancient, having died almost 7000 years ago.

This case is an exceptionally rare and exciting find, not only because of its great antiquity, but also because it represents two remarkable sets of circumstances surrounding one tragic event. Our young Lokomotiv mother represents one of the earliest-documented cases, worldwide, of death during childbirth. She reveals the almost unavoidable risks faced by women throughout human history, and still in developing nations today. Furthermore, the incredible discovery of her two infants may very well represent the earliest confirmed set of human twins in the world. Rather than being lost forever with the passage of time, a tragic event from 7000 years ago has now been rediscovered. The death of a young mother long ago is adding to our knowledge of twins in prehistory and demonstrating the immense risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth in the absence of modern medical care, particularly when multiple infants are involved.

Figure 1. The young Lokomotiv mother in her grave. Note the small infant bones in her pelvic cavity and between her thighs.

Figure 2. An example of the duplicated infant skull bones documented by Dr. Lieverse. These are parts of the occipital bone that forms the base of the skull. As you can see, one baby (represented by the three bones on the left) was slightly bigger than other (represented by the two bones on the right). This is common among twins.

 

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