A new study suggests that we've been unfairly giving a bad rap to prehistoric mothers. Researchers from the Australian National University say the idea that early women were bad caregivers is based on a faulty interpretation of ancient burial sites, reports the Australian Associated Press. Because lots of infants have turned up at those sites, a common estimate is that nearly half of all prehistoric newborns died as babies, says ANU biological anthropologist Clare McFadden, co-author of the study in the American Journal of Biogical Anthropology. But her team challenged that assumption by looking at modern stats on fertility and infant mortality. They discovered that spikes in infant deaths were accompanied by spikes in overall births—meaning, more babies weren't dying because of bad care but simply because more babies were being born in the first place.
In other words, the stats say more about fertility than mortality. "When we look at these burial samples, it actually tells us more about the number of babies that were born and tells us very little about the number of babies that were dying, which is counterintuitive to past perceptions," says McFadden in a news release. If fertility rates were high, it's reasonable to think that early mothers raised lots of offspring who made it into childhood and beyond, she adds. The assumption is based on subjective guesswork, but then so was the earlier assumption that these women were inept. "Artistic representations and popular culture tend to view our ancestors as these archaic and incapable people, and we forget their emotional experience and responses such as the desire to provide care and feelings of grief date back tens of thousands of years," says McFadden. (Read more discoveries stories.)