Little Lives: New Perspectives on Child Health and the Life Course in Bioarchaeology

Saturday 30th January 2016 – Department of Archaeology, Durham University

Report by Conference Organisers: Sophie Newman, Lauren Walther and Claire Hodson

On Saturday 30th January 2016 the Little Lives conference was held within the Department of Archaeology, Durham University, and sponsored by the Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past (SSCIP). This one-day meeting aimed to showcase current research into child health in the past, and facilitate discussion relating to how we can use such approaches to gain a life course perspective within bioarchaeological study. In total, 60 delegates attended the Little Lives conference from a wide range of institutions based within Europe and North America.

SSCIP picture

The first session of the day, “Life Before Birth”, was introduced by keynote speaker Dr Rebecca Gowland (Durham University) who demonstrated the crucial impact that maternal health can have on both the immediate survival prospects of the growing foetus, and also its future health and developmental trajectory. Dr Gowland remarked how, in archaeological contexts, the discovery of infant remains can reveal information about the absent mother; nutritional deficiencies, infectious diseases and even congenital abnormalities can all reveal fascinating insights into maternal health and wellbeing. She also discussed the theoretical implications between the interconnected lives of mother and child, emphasising that we are all born into a socially constructed world, a world that has already affected us in utero without us even being aware. Mark Guillon (Bordeaux) furthered this discourse by assessing the burial treatment surrounding foetal, perinatal and infant individuals at Saint Ayoul, France. He discussed how mortuary practice and behavior often reflects more on the living rather than the deceased. Also within this session Caroline Partiot presented a new potential method for identifying those infants who were predisposed to a short life, through the presence of cervical ribs.

The second session, “Growth, Health, and Childhood”, focused on studies encompassing the period of childhood and growth. Dr Julia Beaumont (University of Bradford), gave the keynote address for this session, and highlighted the integral role that techniques such as incremental isotopic analysis can play in accessing information not only relating to the childhood experiences of an individual, but also in utero development and maternal health. The session continued to demonstrate the value of isotopic analysis, with Elizabeth Craig-Atkins presenting the use of incremental analysis to discuss the potential link between weaning histories and burial practices amongst children. Dawn Gooney discussed the use of a combination of isotopic and pathological analysis to reveal adverse conditions experienced in childhood in Iron Age Orkney. Other methodologies for accessing evidence of child health in the past were then explored, with Emmy Bocaege’s high-resolution microscopic analysis of dental enamel showing the potential for identifying timings of episodes of stress to a greater degree. Finally, Joanna Moore revealed preliminary findings related to the impact of lead poisoning in Roman skeletal samples, this study promises to continue to reveal fascinating results regarding lead use and its impact on health in the Roman Empire.

Finally, the third and final session, “Back to the Future!”, tied together the two preceding themes to consider the impact that early life stress can have on future adult health. Keynote speaker Dr Emma Pomeroy (University of Cambridge) discussed the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease Hypothesis and how an individual’s prenatal and early postnatal environment can influence the trajectory of their growth, development, and health in later life. She demonstrated that disruption during critical windows of growth during foetal and infant development can have serious implications for adult health, including the risk of chronic disease. It was recommended that methods such as measuring vertebral neural canal size, stature, and assessing fluctuating asymmetry (using bones in the cranium and long bones) can help bioarchaeologists unravel childhood health of survivors (adults) in past populations. This theme continued in the session presentations, with focus given to growth and development during puberty by Nicola Arthur and Charlotte Henderson, Rebecca Watts assessed the risk of mortality from vertebral neural canal diameter, and Emily Holland addressed what we as bioarchaeologists can learn about past health from assessing both survivors and non-survivors within a population.

A clear theme arose throughout the day, and that is the growing awareness, and inclusion, of principles relating to the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease Hypothesis (DOHaD hypothesis, aka Barker Hypothesis), within bioarchaeological study. How our experiences during the very earliest stages of life can shape our future capabilities for growth, and buffering of stress, is becoming an increasingly popular avenue of study within this field, and is helping re-structure our analyses of health in the past in accordance with a life-course perspective. Described in the presentation by Dr Rebecca Gowland as not simply individualized, discrete, life trajectories, but analogous to “Russian dolls”, and also reiterated by the research of Dr Julia Beaumont and Dr Emma Pomeroy, how we develop is shaped not only by our own experiences, but also those of generations before us.

The event was highly successful, and provided much food for thought. It is now hoped that such meetings will continue, perhaps to be held every two years within different host institutions. A conference proceedings stemming from this event was also a popular suggestion from attendees, and will be discussed by the organising committee in upcoming weeks. SSCIP was promoted throughout the conference and we used some of the SSCIP sponsorship money to produce a new banner, which was displayed prominently at the front of the lecture theatre. The event has resulted in at least two new members.