Newborn Twins from Prehistoric Mainland Southeast Asia: Birth, Death and Personhood

Article excerpt


Worldwide, twins have special social significance, and, as such, are often integral to social and cultural systems of belief. This paper outlines a method for identifying the occurrence of twin burials in archaeological contexts, using an approach that incorporates both the biological and archaeological evidence within a social theoretical framework for understanding their significance in past societies. The approach examines age-at-death using long bone lengths, archaeological evidence for whether or not infants were buried simultaneously, and mortuary ritual data to infer social information.

Using these methods we present evidence of the rare occurrence of at least two, and possibly four, sets of burials containing newborn twins from the prehistoric site of Khok Phanom Di in south-east Thailand. Although the twins' burial rites were generally consistent with the normal burial context for infants at this site, their bodies were differently placed, indicating their special status in the community.

Twins as a special category of being

Multiple births are significant to families and communities on a number of levels. They entail additional physical care and subsistence requirements from their families and the wider social group (Granzberg 1973; Ball & Hill 1996). Just as most societies have a social age category for infants based, in part, on their fragility and susceptibility to morbidity and death, especially around birth (Halcrow & Tayles 2008, 2011), there is a heightened awareness of vulnerability of multiple births to mortality and morbidity (Pector 2002). This greater vulnerability is documented in the medical literature today (Kiely 1990; Martin & Park 1999). Monozygotic ('identical') twins also have a higher rate of congenital abnormalities than singletons or dizygotic ('non-identical') twins (Schinzel et al. 1979). Related to the recognition of the vulnerability and their impact on caregivers, as well as the relative rarity of human twins, cross-culturally multiple births are considered as special, a class apart from the norm (Corney 1975; Stewart 2000). There is a range of social and cultural responses to twin birth, from being considered a misfortune or dangerous, or taboo, to being revered and a sign of good fortune (Chappel 1974; Corney 1975; Ball & Hill 1996: 856; Stewart 2000; Pector 2002). These different social responses are illustrated in the diverse birth rituals as well as burial and mourning practices for twins observed among different cultures (Goldschmidt 1973; Pector 2002). While there is diversity in responses to human twins among different societies, one unifying factor is the recognition of their special status, and central place in social and cultural rituals and customs (Stewart 2000; Pector 2002). Consequently, the recognition and interpretation of these burials may reveal factors of social and cultural significance to past communities.

Archaeological background of Khok Phanom Di

The prehistoric site of Khok Phanom Di is a high mound that dominates the flood plain of the Bang Pakong River in Chonburi province, Thailand. Initially occupied in about 2000 cal BC, the site holds a commanding position on the river estuary, with easy access to the rich food resources of the mangrove shore, the river and the open sea. However, rice cultivation was ruled out by the saline conditions, and there is no evidence for agriculture or domestic animals. Seven mortuary phases (MP) were identified during the excavation (Figure 1) (Higham & Bannanurag 1990). It was during MP3B, when the sea level temporarily fell, that several significant environmental and cultural changes incorporating rice cultivation occurred (Mason 1991; Thompson 1996; Vincent 2004). At the same juncture, preserved human faeces and stomach contents examined using micromorphological criteria were found to contain the remains of cultivated rice (Thompson 1996), and the artefacts now included granite hoes and shell reaping knives also indicative of rice cultivation. …