In ancient times, female death rates were particularly high and generally related to problems in maternity, such as complications during pregnancy, childbirth or the period of breast-feeding. However, in most cases this link has only been established from indirect data, such paleodemographic data and ethnographic references, or based on the poor health conditions normally attributed to ancient human groups.
There also exists direct archaeological evidence of the high rate of female mortality in the child-rearing period. However, it has not always been possible to establish the cause of death in females and whether or not there was any relation to obstetric complications. Despite this, a number of cases of female skeletons with the foetus in the uterus have been described, as well as some cases where signs of obstetric complications have been diagnosed. These archaeological cases are extremely rare, are not well documented in the specialist literature and are not well known among the scientific community.
Joint research between the UAB and the Universidad de Murcia has found a clear example of an ancient burial of a pregnant woman whose death can be linked to difficult birth (dystocia). The archaeological team from the Universidad de Murcia, headed by Maria Manuela Ayala, found the remains in 1996 at the “El cerro de las Viñas” site in Murcia (Spain). Now, the UAB anthropologists, headed by Assumpció Malgosa, have established that it is the oldest case so far described in the paleopathological literature.
The burial dates from the Argaric period, between 1,500 and 1,000 years BC, in the Bronze Age. Argaric culture funeral rituals were characterised by individual inhumations, most of them within the dwelling or its perimeter. This burial is within one of these dwellings. It is that of a young woman, about 25-26 years of age, with a foetus in the 37th to 39th week of gestation in the uterine cavity, in a crosswise position and with part of the right arm outside the uterus.
In line with modern obstetric practices, the study of the two individuals and differential diagnosis has enabled the probable cause of death of the mother, and therefore the foetus, to be established as dystocia due to position of the foetus. Without a caesarean section, the mother probably died of sepsis, haemorrhage and exhaustion during the birth, and the foetus of heart failure.
The research was carried out by Assumpció Malgosa, Alícia Alesan and Santiago Safont, from the Unitat d’Antropologia del Departament de Biologia Animal, de Bilogia Vegetal i d’Ecologia, together with Madrona Ballbé (gynaecology) and Maria Manuela Ayala, from the Departamento de Prehistoria, Historia Antigua e Historia Medieval of the Universidad de Murcia, and was recently published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.