The latest issue of the journal Antiquity published a sad, yet fascinating report of a woman who died whilst giving birth to twins. Found at Lokomotiv in southern Siberia and dated to 7810-7640 cal BP, the woman in grave R11 is the earliest known instance of a mother of twins. She died at the age of 20-25 and was buried in prone and extended position with 15 mammuth teeth; her burial did not stand out in terms of funerary treatment or grave goods.
The location of the fetal remains suggest that the birth process could not be successfully completed. The first twin presented in breech and the second in vertex position; it seems that the first baby had been partly delivered when death occurred, but cranial elements of both babies were discovered in the region of the mother’s lower abdomen. The babies were near or full term and died in utero together with the mother.
Findings such as this one are extremely rare in the archaeological record. Direct evidence of obstetric death – pregnant women with fetus in situ – have been observed, but it takes careful excavation, documentation and analysis to detect them. One can assume that many antiquarian excavations missed them. A recent re-analysis of the grave of the “Rich Athenian Lady”, a famous Geometric tomb dated to c. 800 BC, revealed fetal bones amongst the cremated remains suggesting that she also was pregnant or died during childbirth.
Archaeological evidence of twins is likewise scarce. Even when babies or children of the same age and size are found together in a grave, only a DNA match could ultimately prove their relationship. The burial of two new-born babies under a mammoth shoulder blade at Krems-Wachtberg, Austria, dated to c. 27000 BP, however, presents strong circumstantial indication of twins.
Today, about 1.1% of all births are twin births, but the rates vary widely geographically. Twinning is much more common in western Africa, for example, ranging as high as about 45 per 1000 births for the Yoruba. Advanced maternal age, several previous pregnancies and greater than average height and weight are factors contributing to twinning.
Although prehistoric people were certainly familiar with the concept of twins from the animal kingdom, twin births may have been so rare in small scale societies that many have never met a twin directly. It is unlikely that the unfortunate woman from Lokomotiv knew she expected twins.
We do not know what kinds of beliefs prehistoric people attached to twins. Ethnographically, a wide rage of responses to the birth of twins are known. Some societies attach ritual and religious significance or even a sacred social status to twins, whist others believe in twins being a sign of evil. Killing on or both twins at birth was not uncommon. Romulus and Remus were said to be exposed, nursed by a wolf and brought up by shepherds, before Romulus founded Rome in 753 BC.
Twins are part of the mythology of many cultures and represent dualistic views of the world, good and bad, light and darkness, life and death. Kristian Kristiansen and Thomas Larsson have argued that the concept of twin rulers was important in the Nordic Bronze Age – chiefs that represent both the religious and secular spheres of life.
Einwögerer, T., H. Friesinger, M. Händel, C. Neugebauer-Maresch, U. Simon, and M. Teschler-Nicola. 2006. Upper Palaeolithic infant burials. Nature 444(7117): 285-285.
Kristiansen, K., and T. B. Larsson. 2005. The Rise of Bronze Age Society. Travels, transmissions and transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lieverse, A. R., V. I. Bazaliiskii, and A. W. Weber. 2015. Death by twins: a remarkable case of dystocic childbirth in Early Neolithic Siberia. Antiquity 89(343): 23-38.
Liston, M. A., and J. K. Papadopoulos. 2004. The “Rich Athenian Lady” was Pregnant: The Anthropology of a Geometric Tomb Reconsidered. Hesperia 73: 7-38.