Rare child burial in Indonesia

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A sub-adult burial dating to the early-mid Holocene, c.8000 BP, has been found in Makpan Cave on Alor Island, south-eastern Indonesia.

The entrance to the cave
The burial found in Gua Makpan, a cave on Alor Island, is the first child burial from the early-mid Holocene to be found in Island South-east Asia. [Image: Dr Shimona Kealy, ANU]

To date, only a few complete pre-Neolithic burials have been found in Island South-east Asia, despite the region’s vast size. The discovery in Makpan Cave is thought to be the first example of a sub-adult burial from the early-mid Holocene period found in the area, making it particularly significant.

The burial was found near the entrance to the cave during excavations in 2016, and analysis of the skeletal remains has now been published in Quaternary International (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2020.10.004).

Skeletal analysis suggested that the child was 4 to 5 years old at the time of death, but analysis of the teeth indicates that they were in fact more likely to be between 6 and 8 years old. Environmental factors like malnutrition, illness, and extreme physical workload can restrict skeletal maturation, but more health analysis is needed to determine what might have caused the delay in development in this individual.

The burial is missing some elements, including the arm and leg bones, and many of the skeletal remains that are present were not found in anatomical positions. This indicates that it was most likely either a secondary burial, where the body was originally buried or exposed somewhere else before interment in Makpan Cave, or perhaps a delayed primary burial, where some degree of decomposition occurred before burial. The removal of long bones from burials has been found at other sites in Indonesia, but this is the first time it has been found in the burial of a child.

In addition to these preparatory treatments of the skeleton, there is evidence of ochre pigmentation on the individual’s cheeks, right temple, and the left side of the forehead. The pigment may have been applied to the cranium before decay and transferred to the bones over time or it could have been applied directly to the decomposed remains. A stone coated in ochre was also found in the grave, placed underneath the child’s head.

This article appeared in issue 105 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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