The excavation at Spitalfields
The churchyard at St. Mary’s in Spitalfields, London, was the final resting place for more than 10,000 people in medieval times. But among the run-of-the-mill gravesites, archaeologists with the Museum of London Archaeology have found, were 175 mass graves, containing the closely packed bodies of thousands of men, women, and children. What happened to these people? The answer, it turns out, could be decidedly unusual.
The team’s first thought was the obvious: the Black Death, which ravaged England starting in 1347. But once the bodies in the mass graves were carbon dated, it was clear that they had died a hundred years before the first plague-carrying flea came to Britain: around 1250. “As soon as we got the radiocarbon dates back, we knew that couldn’t possibly be the case. There had to be some other event,” says Natasha Powers, the head of osteology at the Museum of London Archaeology.
The disastrous economic policies of Mao’s Great Leap Forward caused the single deadliest famine in the history of the world. Between 1958 and 1961, an estimated 15 to 45 million people died of malnutrition in China. And during this period, according to a new study, a strangely high proportion of babies born were female.
China has had a long cultural tradition of favoring sons over daughters, and boys outnumber girls every year in this data from 1940 to 1980. But from one year after the famine’s beginning to two years after its end, the proportion of males drops sharply, as you can see in the graph above.
This study may bolster the Trivers-Willard hypothesis, which suggests that poor maternal condition, such as famine, would favor giving birth to more girls. Since the reproductive success of males tend to be more variable—a reproductively successful male can father many children, whereas a unfit one fathers none—girls are a “safer” evolutionary investment in risky times. The birth sex ratios of mammals such as ground squirrels and red deer follow this pattern. Lab experiments where the male blastocytes of cows survive better in glucose-rich environments identified a possible mechanism.
“Hongerwinter,” or “hunger winter”—that’s what they called the end of 1944 in the Netherlands. As World War II lurched toward its end, Nazi Germany put up a blockade to prevent food from entering the Netherlands. According to a study by Dutch researchers, that famine is still felt all these years later in the brains of people who were born during those years.
Susanne de Rooij and colleagues looked at more than 700 people born during those years, 300 of whom experienced famine in utero, to see if that experience changed their brains.
In the study, 64 seniors who were exposed to famine in the early stages of gestation did worse on cognitive-function tests that required them to do tasks like name the color of the word “blue” when it was printed in yellow ink, than seniors who were exposed later or not at all to hunger in utero. The researchers also found that exposure to famine at any stage of the mother’s pregnancy resulted in a smaller head circumference at ages 56-59.”Head size is related to brain size and reduced size has been associated with decreased cognitive abilities in the elderly,” they wrote. [AFP]