Courtesy of Discovery
Infantacide was once a widely tolerated practice in human societies around the world.
updated 5/5/2011 3:45:28 PM ET 2011-05-05T19:45:28

Infanticide, the killing of unwanted babies, was common throughout the Roman Empire and other parts of the ancient world, according to a new study.

The study, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science, explains that "until recently, (infanticide) was a practice that was widely tolerated in human societies around the world. Prior to modern methods of contraception, it was one of the few ways of limiting family size that was both safe for the mother and effective."

Based on archaeological finds, the practice appears to have been particularly widespread in the Roman Empire.

"I think it was tolerated in the Roman world rather than something that was completely acceptable, but it's hard to be sure," lead author Simon Mays told Discovery News.

Mays, a senior scientific officer for the Ancient Monuments Laboratory of English Heritage, and colleague Jill Eyers focused their attention on Yewden Roman villa, otherwise known as "Hambelden." This villa, which dates from the 1st to the 4th century, is located at Hambleden, Buckinghamshire, England.

A previous excavation of Hambleden in 1921 determined that the site has 97 infant burials, the largest number of such burials for any Roman location in Britain. The excavator at the time suspected infanticide "with surreptitious disposal of the bodies."

Since few infant skeletons show evidence of cause of death, Mays and Eyers used an indirect method to investigate possible infanticide at Hambleden. Natural deaths tend to show a dispersed age distribution at burial sites. At places where infanticide occurred, the age distribution is more uniform, corresponding to full-term infancy.

The researchers took bone measurements of the Hambleden infant remains and compared them to those taken at two other sites: Ashkelon, Israel and the medieval Wharram Percy, England. Infants buried at Wharram Percy likely died of natural causes. Ashkelon, once part of the Roman Empire, told a different story.

Nearly 100 infants all died at Ashkelon at about the same full-term age. They were not buried, but instead were cast into a sewer that ran beneath a brothel. Researchers suspect that most such victims were suffocated to death.

Although the Hambleden babies were buried, their age distribution matched that of the infants at Ashkelon.

"Why so many infants were found in the Hambleden excavations is unclear," Mays said. "The infant burials were clustered together rather than scattered, and the excavated area just happened to contain the infant burial ground."

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The findings add to the growing body of evidence that infanticide was common in the Roman Empire. The prehistoric sites of Khok Phanom Di, Thailand, and Lepinski Vir and Vlasac, Serbia, also yielded probable evidence for infanticide. A 1973 survey of human societies determined that 80 percent of them, at some time in the past or more modern times, practiced this intentional killing of babies.

Gwen Hunnicutt of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Gary LaFree of the University of Maryland, College Park, have extensively studied infanticide, directing their attention to more recent documented cases from 27 countries around the world.

Hunnicutt and LaFree found what they conclude is "a positive relationship between income inequality and female infant homicide victimization."

"Societies with extreme poverty may use infant homicide as a means to conserve resources, reduce economic strain or improve the quality of life for the family," they explained. "Infanticide actually decreases in countries characterized by a culture of violence."

The researchers suggest that the practitioners may, in some cases, perceive infanticide as "mercy killing, where the goal may be to alleviate suffering, not to cause it."

Hunnicutt and LaFree believe "increases in government support of family services, day care relief and other types of parental support might mitigate some negative effect of the economic impact of women in the labor force."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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