In the Arma Veirana cave in Liguria, Italy, a recent discovery sheds light on how ancient European peoples handled their dead. The grave was adorned with beads and animal parts and dates from more than 10,000 years ago. But the most incredible aspect of this grave is that deceased was a little girl of only 2-months-old, making this decorated grave the oldest female, infant burial ever to have been discovered in Europe. Though we’ll never know her real name, scientists have nicknamed her Neve, which means “bright”.

Ligurian pre-Alps Italy
Via: F Ceragioli/Wiki Commons

A new study published in the journal, Scientific Reports, details how a female infant (officially known as AVH-1) who died between 10,211 and 9910 years ago was buried. The age of the grave was determined using radiocarbon dating and 3D imagery was implemented via photogrammetry to understand where each bone had been placed before excavations might disturb them.

Her age at death is estimated to have been between 40-50 days old, but her elaborate grave shows that in her short life her importance to her family was tremendous.

ancient grave goods from oldest female child grave in Europe
Via: Jamie Hodgkins et al/Scientific Reports

The grave was found in the Arma Veirana cave in the Ligurian pre-Alps and is the oldest female infant burial in Europe to date. Her grave was filled with shell beads- 66 of them were found scattered around the bones. Erosion, moisture, and debris had shifted the bones and some of the shells leading the researchers to conclude that at least 66 shells were originally present at the burial.

4 shell pendants were also found along with the beads in a line, suggesting that they could have been sewn onto a shroud or hood that has since rotted away. Some of the beads were found along the what would have been the torso of the child, meaning that she could have been dressed in vestments before being buried in her shallow grave.

ancient child grave from Italy
Via: Jamie Hodgkins et al/Scientific Reports

Wear on the beads hints that they were not made for the burial, but that they had instead been sourced from people who had worn them for years. The estimated time to drill the the bead holes is 8-11 hours, not including collecting the shells from the wild or sewing them onto garments. A polished eagle-owl talon was also found in the grave. This huge cost of labor is another indication of how much this child was grieved.

This early Holocene grave shows that these hunter-gather peoples had a notion of personhood that potentially started at birth, and that this personhood extended to female children. It also contradicts the notion that only warriors, kings, and queens were given lavish burials. This site shows this child was given grave goods that bely her short life and while other graves of this age have yet to be found there are implications that elaborate infant burials for both boys and girls could have been more common than previously assumed.

Jamie Hodgkins, the lead researcher for the study, said in a statement that, “Archaeological reports have tended to focus on male stories and roles, and in doing so have left many people out of the narrative. Protein and DNA analyses are allowing us to better understand the diversity of human personhood and status in the past. Without DNA analysis, this highly decorated infant burial could possibly have been assumed male.”

Arma Veirana cave Italy
Via: Cultural Heritage Engineering Institute/YouTube

The team of researchers analyzed Neve’s tooth enamel and found periods of great hardship at two separate periods before she was born. However, it remains unclear what caused her untimely death.

Attention was drawn to the site after looters has discovered Pleistocene tools in the cave. Older artifacts found in the cave include animals remains and tools dating back to around 50,000 years ago, the latter of which have been associated with Neanderthals. Ancient DNA testing of the infant remains, however, showed that she belonged to the U5b2b haplogroup, a lineage of human women in Europe.

You can see a fly-through model of the cave and the excavations in the video below.