SCIENCE

Ancient Grave In Siberia Yields Earliest Example Of Twins

02/05/2015 08:41 am ET | Updated Feb 05, 2015

An ancient tragedy is shining new light on life in the Neolithic Era, as archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a woman who appears to have died with her twins during childbirth nearly 8,000 years ago.

It's the oldest example of death by dystocia, or obstructed labor, and the earliest known example of twins on the archaeological record, researchers wrote in an article describing the discovery, published in the Feb. issue of the journal Antiquity.

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What makes the discovery so remarkable is that while twins must have been around in prehistoric times, there's almost no direct evidence of them.

The new discovery changes that.

The remains, which are between 7,630 and 7,725 years old, were found at a prehistoric cemetery called Lokomotiv, near present-day Irkutsk in Russia. While the woman's remains were uncovered in 1997, it was believed at the time that she had died with a single child.

But a recent reexamination found a second set of bones in the pelvic region.

"Within five minutes, I said to my colleague, 'Oh my gosh; these are twins,'" Dr. Angela Lieverse, an archaeologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada and one of the researchers, told Live Science.

The woman appeared to be between 20 and 25 at the time of her death, which may have been caused by the unusual arrangement of her twins when she tried to deliver them.

One of the babies was in an incomplete breech, or feet down, while the other was in a normal head-down, or vertex, position. Even today, this happens in only 20 percent of all twin deliveries and is considered to be high-risk, the researchers wrote in Antiquity.

The twins may have been locked together, or one might have had its head trapped in the birth canal. As a result, "all three individuals appear to have died together from complications associated with childbirth," the researchers wrote.

Lieverse told Live Science that the woman had been buried on her back with marmot teeth on her body, similar to many of the other Lokomotiv burials.

"It suggests either they didn't know she had twins or that dying during childbirth wasn't so out of the realm of possibility that it would be considered unique," Lieverse told the website.

The grave of the woman and her twins isn't the only unusual find at the site.

In 1995, archeologists uncovered the grave of a wolf, thousands of miles from its natural habitat, buried with its own assortment of grave goods.

"One can guess this wolf played a very important role in the life of ancient society, because it is very unusual for this animal to be buried in a specially created grave," researchers wrote in 2003. And while there are other examples of dogs being buried in graves during the period, the grave of a wolf is unique.

"This is understandable with dogs being man's helper in everyday life," the researchers wrote. "But there is no previous evidence for an individually buried wolf."

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