The Story of Neve, the Prehistoric Newborn

The Story of Neve, the Prehistoric Newborn
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 20 January, 2023

The loss of a baby is probably one of the most devastating experiences for anyone, regardless of when and where it happens. This is something we’re able to appreciate in the discovery of Neve, a prehistoric newborn infant buried more than 10,000 years ago. She was found in the cave of Arma Veirana, in Italy. It’s the oldest tomb of a newborn baby ever found in Europe. It was there that archeologists found this little girl who died 40 days after her birth.

Archaeologists have named her Neve (snow in Italian), the newborn who our ancestors honored in a delicate, spiritual, and loving way. Indeed, her family gave her an extremely special burial. This revealed, not only the pain that her death had caused them but also the recognition of newborns as an integral part of a social group.

In fact, it appears that their cosmogony, way of understanding death, and funeral practices were close to that of current humanity. It didn’t matter that this little girl only lived for a few weeks. She was considered to be an important member of the social hierarchy. For this reason, her body was adorned with beads and charms and she was given the most careful burial.

A team of archaeologists, led by National Geographic explorer, Jamie Hodgkins, have found the oldest burial site of a newborn child in Europe. The discovery suggests that our Mesolithic ancestors valued boys and girls equally.

The cave where Neve, the prehistoric newborn, was discovered
Neve was discovered in a cave in Liguria (northwestern Italy).

Neve, the prehistoric baby with seashells on her shroud

The material remains found on an archaeological site are like a window to our past. They help us understand our evolution in almost every aspect. Our cognitive, social, technological, biological, cultural, and even spiritual development.

This particular cave in Liguria, in northwestern Italy, has been studied for years. It was in 2017 that the excavations began to provide interesting data and archeologists found many seashells in a section of the cave. They were perforated and some seemed to be set in what looked like a tiny shroud.

Gradually, the researchers started to unearth small human bones. They discovered they belonged to a baby wrapped in a cloth containing a whole array of fascinating ritual objects. DNA analysis revealed that the newborn was a girl. She belonged to a lineage of European women known as the U5b2b ​​haplogroup.

Neve was wrapped in a shell-embellished cloth. It’s thought that the little girl traveled with her mother in a kind of sling.

The loss of certain Mesolithic hunter-gatherers

The Mesolithic Age was the stage that followed the last ice age. Hunting and gathering were the main ways of life. It was a hard period, but also decisive for our evolution. Not only did stone-working techniques improve, but more sedentary groups began to emerge. This facilitated the consolidation of social groups and their hierarchies.

Our ancestors at this time were forced to cope with extremely low temperatures. Consequently, it often made it difficult for them to obtain food. We know from the tests that Neve’s mother had a plant-based diet. Moreover, during pregnancy, the little girl had developmental problems.

The exact cause of her death isn’t known. However, we know without a doubt that the harsh conditions in which her family lived meant neonatal deaths were frequent. In fact, in Neve’s case, due to physiological stress, her teeth had stopped growing a month or so before birth.

A special burial

Neve was wrapped in a shroud and buried in the deepest part of the Arma Veirana cave. On the cloth, were sixty seashells that had been presumably attached to the fabric. In addition, she had four pendants with her and a talon from an eagle owl. This is interesting as the environment isn’t exactly close to the coast. Therefore, these shells must’ve been collected and saved from previous trips.

The burial was meticulous and careful. This suggests it involved an intense material and emotional investment on the part of the group. The beads were pierced, set in the shape of a necklace, and delicately attached to the shroud in which the baby was wrapped. The owl claw presumably symbolized an element of power or protection.

This burial takes us back to the exact moment in the past when a family had to say goodbye to their youngest member. A girl to whom they dedicated a beautiful burial as a symbol both of their affection and the importance they gave to her life.

Our ancestors left us a thoughtful and really beautiful message in this cave burial in Liguria. It was the fact that even the smallest, briefest, and most fragile life must be revered, loved, and cared for.

Neve's family
The finding of baby Neve reveals to us that even the youngest members were considered to have an individual self and moral agency, and were socially important to the group.

Motherhood in prehistoric times

It’s extremely rare to uncover baby burials from prehistoric times. Neve’s case is unique and exceptional. Moreover, it’s the oldest newborn burial site ever found in Europe. Research reveals how unusual it was that the shroud in which she was wrapped was preserved.

Experts have been able to deduce that Neve traveled in a kind of sling with her mother. This would’ve made it easier for her to collect and search for food. Indeed, motherhood in the Mesolithic age wasn’t easy. However, just like today, mothers sought at all times to keep their babies extremely close to them, with skin-to-skin contact if possible.

We don’t know what Neve’s mother felt when she passed away, but it’s pretty easy to guess. All the ritual, meticulousness, and dedication that was carried out to beautify and adorn the lifeless little girl denotes the affection of her family. Without a doubt, this discovery teaches us, once again, how valuable human life is, no matter how brief and fragile it may be.

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