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Double child burial from sunghir (Russia): Pathology and inferences for upper paleolithic funerary practices



The double child burial from Sunghir (Russia) is a spectacular Mid Upper Palaeolithic funerary example dated to about 24,000 BP. A boy (Sunghir 2) and a girl (Sunghir 3), about 12–13 and 9–10 years old, respectively, were buried at the same time, head to head, covered by red ocher and ornamented with extraordinarily rich grave goods. Examination of the two skeletons reveals that the Sunghir 3 femora are short and exhibit marked antero-posterior bowing. The two femora do not show any asymmetry in the degree of shortening and bowing. Bowing affects the whole diaphysis and shows a regularly incurved profile, with the highest point at midshaft. Pathology is confined to the femora, and no other part of this well-preserved specimen shows abnormality. The isolated nature of the Sunghir 3 anomalies points to cases reported in the medical literature under the label of “congenital bowing of long bones” (CBLB). These are a group of rare conditions exhibiting localized, sometimes bilateral, bowing and shortening which are nonspecific and may result from different causes, including abnormalities of the primary cartilaginous anlage (i.e., the aggregation of cells representing the first trace of an organ). Localized ossification disturbances, possibly linked to a diabetic maternal condition, might explain the shortening and the coincidence of maximum midshaft curvature with the position of the primary ossification center, as well as the lack of involvement of other skeletal parts. This scenario, rather than other possibilities (early bilateral midshaft fracture, acute plastic bowing deformities, or faulty fetal posture), provides the most likely explanation for the Sunghir 3 femoral deformities. The intriguing combination of a pathological condition apparent since birth with a spectacular burial of unusually positioned young individuals of different sexes recalls significant aspects of the triple burial from the contemporary site of Dolní Věstonice (Moravia), evoking a patterned relationship between physical abnormality and extraordinary Upper Paleolithic funerary behavior. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2003. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.