Russian and Canadian archaeologists have discovered skeletal remains of a young woman who died in labour attempting to deliver twins in Siberia, some 7,000 to 8,000 years ago.
The remains were excavated at the middle Holocene hunter-gatherer cemetery at Lokomotiv in southern Siberia.
The find represents the oldest confirmed evidence for human twins and is also the earliest archaeologically documented case of death during childbirth, according to the results published in the February edition of the journal Antiquity.
"Radiocarbon dates obtained from both the mother and infants place the remains firmly within the Early Neolithic period (8000–7000/6800)," authors of the report wrote, adding that a vast majority of other studies documenting examples of dystocic childbirth are within the last 4000 years.
The woman's remains were found with the partial skeletons of two nearly full-term foetuses located in her pelvic area and between her thighs.
"All three individuals appear to have died together from complications associated with childbirth," the authors noted.
Measurements of the foetal bones indicated that the remains were consistent with near or full-term twins, with ages at death ranging largely between 36 and 40 prenatal weeks.
The first infant was in breech position while the second had a normal head-down position.
"The breech presentation of the first twin, in particular, appears to have caused an obstructed labour."
"Cause of death for the mother would probably have been infection, haemorrhage or exhaustion, while that of the infants would most likely have been asphyxia."
Twins in antiquity
Cases of obstructed and preterm childbirth are uncommon in the archaeological record with only about 20 cases of pregnant or labouring females being found since the 1970s.
Evidence of human twin births in antiquity is seldom found.
"Most archaeologically documented twins represent possible or probable cases, with twin status being inferred from circumstantial evidence such as physical similarities of the remains themselves or peculiarities of their burial context," archaeologists said, adding that several presumed cases of ancient twins have been subsequently disproved.
The Lokomotiv discovery is being dubbed "very rare" as it represents the oldest evidence of actual twin birth in ancient times.
"Only under the most unusual of circumstances—such as both infants being interred together in utero [uterus], as is the case here—can we be absolutely certain that twins are represented," the archaeologists said.
"Here we present not only one of the oldest archaeologically documented cases of dystocic death, but also the earliest confirmed set of human twins in the world."
According to the report, only one other case of confirmed human twins has been reported in archaeological literature. It was from a historic or ancestral Arikara (1600–1832AD) burial from South Dakota, USA.
However, in that case, death did not appear to have resulted from complications associated with premature childbirth, as foetal remains, aged about 24 weeks gestation, were recovered from the pelvic and abdominal area of an adult female skeleton, the archaeologists explained.