Where Are All the Babies in Archaeological Sites?

To figure out whether ancient people cremated their babies, archaeologists set some piglets on fire

Jonas Holm Jæger & Veronica Liv Johansen

When archaeologists uncover ancient ruins, they usually find bones. Humans have an incredible, variable history of funeral traditions, and death rituals are remarkably telling about a group of people's world view. But one mystery has long puzzled archaeologists: where are the babies? It’s common to find adult burial sites and adult remains, but very few sites feature baby bones. Of course, we know that babies die, and far more frequently in the past than they do now. So, where are their bones?

Katy Meyers at the blog Bones Don’t Lie presents a few theories. Perhaps babies were buried in separate cemeteries we just haven’t found. Or perhaps their remains decayed quicker because they are so small. One possibility is that infants, unlike their adult caretakers, were cremated after death.

This presents a problem for archaeologists, since cremation leaves little behind for them to study. But Meyers points out that archaeologists have started looking a bit harder at cremation, to see if they could indeed find traces of cremated bodies in archaeological sites. To do so, they need to understand what cremation leaves behind. And to do that, a few archaeologists set fire to some piglets.

Meyers explains what they found:

The results of the study showed that the skeletal remains of the piglet made up between 2.18 and 3.28 % of the original weight prior to burning. This fits with similar findings for infant human remains when done at modern crematoria- though the remains of the piglet were slightly more intact than modern infant cremation due to the conditions of a pyre versus professional crematoria. Jæger and Johanson (2013) argue that based on this experiment, infant remains would be able to withstand the thermic stress of a cremation. They conclude that we should look to socio-anthropological sources of difference in burial- not preservation as the reason for low infant remains in the past. They propose that it is likely that cultural conditioning caused treatment and burial of deceased infants to be done differently from adults, and it is likely that we’re just not looking in the right places for them. 

In other words, baby bones should be able to withstand cremation, and be around for us to find. So the fact that we can’t find the bones doesn’t just mean that the babies were all cremated, but rather that we’re still not looking in the right places, or in the right ways. 

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