DNA analysis on ancient human remains: an international research collaboration explores motherhood in European prehistory

The Institute of Legal Medicine (GMI), Medical University of Innsbruck, has started collaboration in an international consortium under the leadership of principle investigator Dr. Katharina Rebay-Salisbury (Austrian Academy of Sciences). The project aims at shedding light on ancient family relations and explore how mothers were valued in prehistoric societies.

The project "The social status of motherhood in Bronze Age Europe" explores social responses to pregnancy, birth and early child rearing as well as the link between women’s reproductive status and social status in Bronze Age central Europe. The investigations concentrate on the change of the social status of Bronze Age women once they became pregnant and the conceptualization of motherhood over time.

Innovative archaeological, bio-anthropological, chemical and molecular genetic methods will be applied to investigate recently published Bronze Age cemeteries from Austria. Archaeological methods include an assessment of the spatial distribution of graves of infants, pregnant women, double burials of women and children, and women who have/have not given birth, interpreting the symbolic dimension of co-buried objects, and evaluating status differences expressed through funerary treatment as well as in the quality and quantity of grave goods. Bio-anthropological methods include the palaeo-pathological re-assessment of female and infant skeletons, isotope analysis to assess infant feeding practices. Novel DNA technology established at the GMI will be applied to the ancient remains to understand the genetic relationship between co-buried individuals and the sex of buried babies.

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