Lajia (Cine): DNA Reveals That It Was Not The Mother Protecting This Child In The 'Asian Pompeii'
Adult female and child skeletons presumably from house F3 at the Lajia site in China. (Photo/CNS)
Images of skeletons from the Lajia site in the Qinghai province of China are captivating. Painstaking excavation and pedestaling of the bones reveals adults and children in a 4,000-year-old embrace. But while these images have gotten media attention today, the archaeological site has been excavated since 1999 by archaeologists primarily from the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Qinghai Provincial Institute of Antiquity and Archaeology.
Gao and colleagues were interested in knowing if the 16 individuals were related and looked at mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down through the maternal line. “Twelve [DNA] sequences from individuals found in one house were assigned to only five haplotypes,” they write, “consistent with a possible close kinship.” The two skeletons — an adult woman in her mid-30s and a 3- to 4-year-old child — whose image has riveted the media today are assumed to be mother and child, but many media outlets are speaking of “mother and son.” The only way to tell the sex of a subadult is through DNA analysis, but the 2007 publication has no information on sex of the child.
There was one group that did represent a mother-child pair according to the DNA analysis: a late 20s female and a 1- to 2-year-old child from house F4. I don’t think this is the pairing illustrated in the circulating image above for two reasons: the child skull in that photo is more consistent with a 3- to 4-year-old, and based on the diagram in the 2007 article and the image below, the photos show two different adult-child pairs. I couldn’t find a clear image that represents the actual mother-child pair, although the photo above shows most of the groups from house F4. According to my cross-referencing of the 2007 article with these images, the mother-child pair is represented by the skeletons at the very bottom.
Skeletons from house F4 at Lajia, China. The skeletons that showed a mother-child relationship through DNA are the ones on the bottom of the image. (Photo/CNS)
Regardless of which dyad is depicted, what was the relationship between the adult woman and the 3- or 4-year-old child in house F3? Was she perhaps an aunt or an unrelated caregiver? Perhaps they were members of the same extended family? The 2007 DNA results seem to directly contradict the easy explanation of mother protecting her child. But that is, I think, what makes both the archaeological and the DNA results even more exciting. What was the structure of the family like at Lajia? And what does the protective stance of a woman over a child not her own mean for our understanding of Bronze Age China?