Infant mortality was so commonplace in ancient times that children dying before the age of five years did not receive any burial honours.
An archaeological excavation in southern Vietnam of a site more than 3000 years old has shed new light on how the death of young children was viewed by community members and uncovered the oldest clear evidence of rice agriculture in the region.
The excavation, led by Professor Peter Bellwood and Dr Marc Oxenham from the Australian National University's School of Archaeology and Anthropology, studied a site 3-4000 years old named An Son.
"The burial of a new born baby without any associated grave goods and positioned within discarded kitchen material may suggest high levels of infant mortality, as well as a reduced emotional investment in very young children that may not live long anyway," said Professor Bellwood.
"On the other hand, the burial of a 12 year old child with high quality ceramics and stone tools might mean children that survived the danger years - birth to five years old in most cases - could be revered by family or community members in death."
The excavation has also revealed the oldest clear evidence of rice agriculture in southern Vietnam and uncovered the varied diets and agricultural practices of the pre-historic community.
"While this excavation has revealed the earliest clear evidence of rice agriculture in southern Vietnam, their diets were extremely broad," said Dr Oxenham. "A wealth of animal bones - some probably domesticated - attest to the dietary breadth of these early Vietnamese, including species of cattle, pig, deer, freshwater crocodile, shellfish and reptile and amphibian remains.
"We also found a large number of stone adzes, many shouldered to accommodate long-since rotted wooden handles. That suggests a significant amount of forest clearance was occurring, presumably to increase the area of cultivatable land."
The excavation team has also found a large quantity of pottery from humble cooking vessels to massive, ornately-incised and patterned ceramics.
The research team worked with students from ANU in collaboration with the Centre for Archaeological Research, Hanoi and members of the An Son village community. The work is part of a four year ARC-funded project, The Creation of Southeast Asian Peoples and Cultures, 3500BC to AD500.