Infants in the Bioarchaeological Past: Who Cares?

  • Siân HalcrowEmail author
Part of the Bioarchaeology and Social Theory book series (BST)


There has been a recent surge of interest in modelling the social implications of care provision for people with serious disabilities in the bioarchaeological and palaeopathological literature. Perhaps the biggest determinant of foetal and infant health is the care and support they receive, and this starts before birth with the care of the mother. Pregnancy and infancy are the most critical time for both mother and baby health outcomes. Women are more susceptible to malnutrition and disease during pregnancy and lactation. Furthermore, human infants are born in an extreme state of helplessness compared with all other primates, and have underdeveloped immune systems and fast growth, resulting in their vulnerability to environmental stress. Young infants require significant care, yet an acknowledgement of the role of care for infants is lacking in the bioarchaeological literature. New bioarchaeological approaches that use the methods of incremental isotope analyses of deciduous teeth to look retrospectively at the foetal period, palaeopathology of foetuses and infants, and microscopic deciduous dental enamel defects have a real potential to tease apart the maternal-infant relationship during this critical time of pregnancy and infancy. A theoretical review of the bioarchaeology of care of infants is presented that highlights the need for a holistic appreciation of care in society that incorporates the maternal-infant nexus. Although we may use Tilley’s bioarchaeological model of care to assess the care provisions for infants and children with disabilities and/or illness, the consideration of the care of infants and children without evidence for disability is essential to consider in bioarchaeological research. The very act of caring for children has repercussions on the adults and often children caregivers in society and the type of care has a direct effect on infant health and well-being. This chapter presents a model for assessing the impact that infant care provision has on past societies, considering variables including maternal and infant health and mortality, infant feeding practices, fertility, family and social structure, and population size.


Infant care Maternal stress Bioarchaeology of care Foetuses 



Thank you to Rebecca Gowland and Ruth Warren for their constructive feedback on versions of this chapter. This chapter was conceptualised and partly researched during a COFUND Durham International Fellowship, hosted by the Department of Archaeology at Durham University.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnatomyUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand

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