Prehistoric Grave Reveals Death During Childbirth in Siberia

Archaeologists say they've made a grim discovery in Siberia: the grave of a young mother and her twins, who all died during a difficult childbirth about 7,700 years ago.

The finding may be the oldest confirmed evidence of twins in history and one of the earliest examples of death during childbirth, the researchers say.

The grave was first excavated in 1997 at a prehistoric cemetery in Irkutsk, a Russian city near the southern tip of Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest freshwater lake in the world. The cemetery has been dubbed Lokomotiv because it was exposed in the base of a hill that was being carved out during construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1897. [8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries]

Image: Ancient bones
Fetal bones are clearly visible around the abdomen, pelvis and thighs of this woman, buried between 7,630 and 7,725 years ago, according to carbon dating. Vladimir Bazaliiskii

Ancient Images Show Mother Giving Birth

Because the cemetery is partially covered by city development, it hasn't been fully excavated. All 101 of the bodies found so far at Lokomotiv were members of a hunter-gatherer community that roamed the area between 8,000 and 7,000 years ago.

Angela Lieverse, an archaeologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, studies these communities with the Baikal-Hokkaido Archaeology Project. In 2012, Lieverse was revisiting some of the bones found at Lokomotiv, which were in storage at Irkutsk State University. The occupants of the grave in question had initially been interpreted as a mother, 20 to 25 years old, and a single child. But when Lieverse pulled out the box of fetal remains, she said she quickly realized there were duplicates of four or five of the fragile bones.

"Within 5 minutes, I said to my colleague, 'Oh my gosh; these are twins,'" Lieverse told LiveScience.

By analyzing the original placement of the remains, Lieverse reconstructed a traumatic childbirth scenario that even today — with modern medicine and the option of a C-section — would have been risky for the mother and her babies.

It seemed that one of the twins might have been breech (positioned with its feet down) and was partially delivered, Lieverse said. The second twin was positioned with its head down and seems to have remained in the womb. Lieverse thinks the breech baby may have been trapped or locked with its sibling, leading to a fatal obstructed birth.

Maternal death would have been common in prehistory. Still, it's hard to find archaeological evidence of a woman dying during childbirth. Even if a mother's baby was left in the womb after she died, gas from the decomposing body might force the fetus out in what's known as a coffin birth.

The finding was reported in the February issue of the journal Antiquity.

— Megan Gannon, LiveScience

This is a condensed version of a report from LiveScience. Read the full report. Follow Megan Gannon on Twitter and Google+. Follow LiveScience on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.