Child Abuse Evident in Ancient Egyptian Cemetery

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A 2- to 3-year-old child from a Romano-Christian-period cemetery in Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt, shows evidence of physical child abuse, archaeologists have found. The child, who lived around 2,000 years ago, represents the earliest documented case of child abuse in the archaeological record, and the first case ever found in Egypt, researchers say.

The Dakhleh Oasis is one of seven oases in Egypt's Western Desert. The site has seen continuous human occupation since the Neolithic period, making it the focus of several archaeological investigations, said lead researcher Sandra Wheeler, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Central Florida. Moreover, the cemeteries in the oasis allow scientists to take a unique look at the beginnings of Christianity in Egypt.

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In particular, the so-called Kellis 2 cemetery, which is located in the Dakhleh Oasis town of Kellis (southwest of Cairo), reflects Christian mortuary practices. For example, "instead of having children in different places, everyone is put in one place, which is an unusual practice at this time," Wheeler told LiveScience. Dating methods using radioactive carbon from skeletons suggest the cemetery was used between A.D. 50 and A.D. 450.

When the researchers came across the abused toddler — labeled "Burial 519" -- in Kellis 2, nothing seemed out of the ordinary at first. But when Wheeler's colleague Tosha Duprasbegan brushing the sand away, she noticed prominent fractures on the child's arms. [See Photos of Kellis 2 Cemetery & Skeleton]

"She thought, 'Whoa, this was weird,' and then she found another fracture on the collarbone," Wheeler said. "We have some other kids that show evidence of skeletal trauma, but this is the only one that had these really extreme fracture patterns."

Signs of abuse

The researchers decided to conduct a series of tests on Burial 519, including X-ray work, histology (microscopic study of tissues) and isotopic analyses, which pinpoint metabolic changes that show when the body tried to repair itself. They found a number of bone fractures throughout the body, on places like the humerus (forearm), ribs, pelvis and back.

Whereas no particular fracture is diagnostic of child abuse, the pattern of trauma suggests it occurred. Additionally, the injuries were all in different stages of healing, which further signifies repeated nonaccidental trauma.

One of the more interesting fractures was located on the child's upper arms, in the same spot on each arm, Wheeler said. The fractures were complete, broken all the way through the bone — given that children are more flexible than adults, a complete break like that would have taken a lot of force.

After comparing the injury with the clinical literature, the researchers deduced that someone grabbed the child's arms and used them as handles to shake the child violently. Other fractures were also likely caused by shaking, but some injuries, including those on the ribs and vertebrae, probably came from direct blows.