4,800 year old fossil of a mother cradling and looking lovingly down

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
November 3, 2023

Around 4,800 years ago, a young mother died near the Taiwanese coast. When she was lifted from her grave as part of a scientific excavation, archaeologists discovered that she had been buried with a six-month-old infant tucked into her arms. Interred near a stone dwelling, it appeared the pair had been sent into the hereafter in a loving embrace.

No one knows what killed the mother and child, but it is rare to find this kind of joint burial among the island’s Stone Age cultures.

“The young mother holding the baby surprised us most,” says Chu Whei-Lee of Taiwan’s National Museum of Science. “I guess they were buried under the house by their loved ones,” she adds, although more evidence is needed to support that idea.

Sharks and Farms

Chu and her collaborators uncovered the pair during work at a Neolithic site in Taichung City called An-ho in 2014 and 2015. The site, which appears to have been in use for at least 800 years, is located along the central part of Taiwan’s west coast and today is about 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) inland.

But ancient shorelines were different, and it’s likely An-ho was once coastal. Indeed, more than 200 shark teeth were found among the site’s dwellings, ash pits, and graves, suggesting the sea was important for the people who lived there, Chu says.

While it’s not the oldest evidence of humans on Taiwan, the An-ho site is believed to be the first example of what’s known as Dabenkeng culture in this part of the island. Dabenkeng sites appeared abruptly along the Taiwanese coast about 5,000 years ago, and archaeologists suspect the Dabenkeng people arrived on the island, rather than emerging from cultures that already existed there.

“The Dabenkeng people were the first farmers in Taiwan, who may have come from the south and southeast coasts of China about 5,000 years ago,” says Chengwha Tsang of Taiwan’s Academia Sinica. “This culture is the earliest Neolithic culture so far found in Taiwan.”

From Taiwan, the Dabenkeng people may have spread across Oceania and Southeast Asia, carrying their language and culture with them.

“They were probably the earliest ancestors of the Austronesian language-speaking people living nowadays in Taiwan and on the islands of the Pacific,” Tsang says.

Burial Rites

This find should help archaeologists figure out not only how the Dabenkeng people lived, but also how they handled death.

The mother and child were unearthed among at least 48 graves, including those of five young children. Burial goods such as pottery were found with the bodies, which were interred in a north-south alignment and placed on their backs–a departure from the facedown posture usually found among other human burial sites in Taichung.

Chu adds that the team has extracted DNA from the remains and sent it off for analysis, which should help scientists study the relationship between the Dabenkeng, aboriginal Taiwanese, and cultures across Oceania.