The child of the snow: Lessons from the 10,000-year-old story of Neve
10,000 years ago, a mother clutched her growing belly. A month earlier, the pregnancy had become difficult—something was wrong. The mother’s stress was the baby’s stress too, and the baby was due to be born in a few weeks. They were almost there. The mother rested by the Neva river as it flowed down the mountains on its way to the sea. People in the community went about their daily lives, gathering seeds and nuts, butchering mountain goats recently hunted, and preparing meals. Some members tanned hides and prepared clothing, adding shell beads and pendants for decoration, some that had been passed down for generations. Time went by and the day finally arrived. The woman gave birth to a baby girl, who was welcomed by the group with open arms. Things might have seemed fine at first, the baby crying, suckling, being passed around the group for love and comfort, but soon it would have been clear that the baby’s health was declining. Then, less than two months after birth, the young girl was gone. Her community, along with her mother and father, took her tiny body to a marble cave, just upslope from the river. The cave opened directly north and inside it was beautiful, ascending to a high point in the center, the walls draped by flowstone ribbons. A small pit was dug in the middle of the cave. The baby was buried wrapped in a garment decorated with over sixty pierced shell beads, and three pendants. The size of the pendants looked huge next to the tiny infant, but she was worth it. She had been a part of their group. The cave echoed with sounds of grief as the small body was returned to the earth, the shells and pendants buried with her, removed from the life of the living and encapsulated in time. The mother’s hand slid along the cave wall as she steadied herself to go, her fingerprints marking this place with her love and her grief. The father’s tears dotted the ground. An Aunt and Uncle stayed back as other community members left, wanting one last moment. Their hands dug at the dirt covering the infant as they each made a small pit near the burial for their last gifts: the talon of an eagle owl, and another pendant.
Jamie Hodgkins and daughter at the excavation of Neve with Julien Riel-Salvatore and Simon Paquin.
This is what we imagine unfolded at what is today known as Arma Veirana (AV), a beautiful cave in the Ligurian pre-Alps of northwestern Italy. Our international research team (Caley Orr, Fabio Negrino, Claudine Gravel-Miguel, Julien Riel-Salvatore, Marco Peresani, Stefano Benazzi, David Strait, Christopher Miller, Jamie Hodgkins) began excavating at Arma Veirana in 2015. Our project was initiated with permission from the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per la città metropolitana di Genova e le province di Imperia, La Spezia e Savona and Italian Ministry of Culture and funding from a National Geographic Waitt grant with the goal of uncovering archaeological material from Neandertals, and we did just that—the first two excavation seasons exposed stratigraphic layers that contained not only tools often associated with Neandertals in Europe (Mousterian tools) but also the remains of ancient meals that left behind cut-marked bones of wild boars, elk, and bits of charred fat.
Archaeological team excavating in the Arma Veirana cave .
We continued work at Arma Veirana in 2017 with funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, but that season was different. For one thing, I was pregnant, just beginning my second trimester, and having lost a prior pregnancy in a complicated miscarriage six months earlier. Rather than starting the day on an arduous hike to the cave with the excavation team and then hiking back to the lab in the afternoon as I had done in past seasons, I spent most days in the lab watching artifacts come out of the sieves, studying and then curating each found piece with students. Meanwhile, excavations in the cave were expertly directed by Caley and Claudine. Each night, as equipment was being put away, I was able to see what had been excavated and mapped in 3D space, and members of the excavation team could see artifacts they had excavated, washed and laid out in the lab. As we worked through July, everything was progressing as planned.
A main goal for the season was to better understand the stratigraphy of the cave as it related to the >50,000-year-old Mousterian artifacts we had recovered, and to expose potential Upper Paleolithic deposits that might be the source of artifacts we had found eroding down the cave floor, which slopes north toward the entrance. To that end, our team expanded excavation units from the front toward the back of the cave. At AV, sediments have eroded out of the front of the cave, so that older sediments are exposed nearer to the surface in the front, but younger sediments are still preserved in the back. Thus, as excavations expanded southward toward the back of the cave, we were moving forward in time.
Back at the lab, with one week left in the 2017 field season, pierced shell beads started coming out of the sieves, first one, the next day two, then three. I called up to the cave with a warning, “we are getting close to something.” On a hot, humid late afternoon, as I sat analyzing bone fragments and Fabio analyzed stone tools, the cellphone rang: “We are uncovering a burial.” Fabio and I rushed to the site. When we arrived, Geneviève Pothier-Bouchard had exposed parts of an infant cranial vault and articulated lines of pierced shell beads. The cliché that you always make the biggest finds on the last day was true. We were out of time. This was scheduled to be the last day of the excavation. Students had flights home, grant money had run out, and the excavation leaders had classes to teach. There was no way to excavate the cranium quickly without breaking it. Work was going to take weeks longer. We made the decision to cover the remains in a protective layer of sand, netting, and plastic to protect everything underneath until we could come back the following season. We walked away worrying and hoping everything would be ok. At banquets in the villages closest to the cave, Fabio, Marco, and Stefano described what had been found. As we left, we were comforted by the knowledge that people from the villages of Cerisola and Erli would keep watch over the site throughout the year.
Project Co-Director Fabio Negrino of the University of Genoa excavating with students.
In 2018, we returned with funding from the Leakey Foundation and the Hyde Family Foundation. This time, Caley and I came as a family with our six-month-old girl, and her grandmother Deb Hulting. Over the course of five weeks, the remains of the buried baby were revealed by the steady hand of Geneviève and Simon Paquin. As had been done since the beginning of the excavation in 2015, photogrammetric images linked to 3D coordinate data in the cave were taken by Dominique Meyer and Danylo Drohobytsky (then students at UC San Diego’s CISA3), allowing for the team to recreate the excavation in a virtual environment. Sediment from the burial pit was placed in bags and carried in full to the lab, where I sieved the sediment through a 1 mm sieve. Several of the infant’s baby teeth stained brown over time were recovered this way along with the tiny remains of hand and finger bones.
By the end of the season, we had recovered all that remained of the infant of Arma Veirana. In a series of analyses coordinated with multiple institutions and numerous experts, we learned details about this brief life. Radiocarbon dating determined that the child lived 10,000 years ago. DNA and amelogenin protein analysis revealed that the infant was a female belonging to a lineage of European women known as the U5b2b haplogroup. Detailed virtual histology of the infant’s teeth showed that she died 40-50 days after birth, and that she experienced stress that briefly halted the growth of her teeth 47 days and 28 days before she was born. Carbon and nitrogen analyses of the teeth helped us see that the baby’s mother had been nourishing the infant in her womb on a diet composed of food from the land, not the sea. An analysis of the ornaments adorning the infant funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council demonstrated not only the time and care invested in each piece, but also that many of the ornaments exhibited wear that would have taken longer to accumulate than she had lived, and thus must have been passed down to her from group members only to be returned to the earth with her. Our team nicknamed the Arma Veirana baby “Neve,” which (in a funny twist) comes from Caley’s misspelling of the river valley where the site is located. But “neve” means “snow” in Italian, a beautiful word, and the name stuck.
Burial of Neve as documented using 3D photogrammetry. Insert shows reconstructed position of the infant.
As it turns out, Neve is the most ancient burial of a baby girl currently documented in the European archaeological record. In our paper published in Scientific Reports, we conclude that the burial of such a young female with abundant ornamentation reflects a degree of egalitarian treatment of individuals in life and death regardless of age or sex. This is not always the case, especially in societies with high rates of infant mortality. Along with the burial of a similarly aged female from Upward Sun River in Alaska, the funerary treatment of Neve suggests that the recognition of infant females as full persons has deep origins in a common ancestral culture that was shared by peoples who migrated into Europe and those who migrated to North America, or that this recognition arose in parallel in populations across the planet. Either way, the terminal Pleistocene and earliest Holocene shows definitive evidence for the recognition of young girls as members of human society.
3D reconstruction of Neve's burial site.