Adoption in Archaeological Human Remains: History
Please note this is an old version of this entry, which may differ significantly from the current revision.

Adoption appears in different moments of past societies. When establishing a “family” nucleus burial place, it is must be considered certain social behaviors, such as burials under the houses, collective burials, or laying bodies in specific positions.

  • adoption
  • archaeological site
  • genetics
  • families

1. Introduction

Adoption is understood as a process by which a person assumes the upbringing of another person, usually a child. It is not ruled out that the adoption may be of an adult. However, the concept of “adoption” has changed throughout History. The modern form of adoption arose in the United States in the mid-19th century, when the American Civil War resulted in unprecedented overcrowding in orphanages and founding homes (Gomes et al. 2021). Consequently, the Orphan Train movement of 1859 arose, which eventually sent some 2,000,000 children from urban centers to rural eastern regions; however, the children were generally hired rather than adopted (O’Connor 2004).
Another concept that has changed in different times and societies is the family or family nucleus. Currently, it is understood in Western societies as a set of individuals who are genetically related, such as parents, children, grandparents, or uncles. Generally, researchers refer to a direct and generationally close family, but there are exceptions with family members further away from the family tree, such as a third cousin, for example. In a restricted sense, the “nuclear family” can be considered a group or a threesome comprising a father, a mother, and one or more children. There are cases of individuals who are not genetically related representing a role in the family of the adoptive child (Sumaza and Rodríguez 2003). 
Throughout History, different forms of the adoption practice have appeared. The oldest well-documented adoption practices date to ancient Mesopotamia and Rome (Lindsay 2009). Although there is no record of adoption in most ancient chronological periods, it is very important to note that this does not mean that the phenomenon of adoption did not exist, and this will have consequences for approaching an archaeological find.
Adoptions have been detected in many cultures throughout History but for different purposes. While the European Western idea of adoption focuses on extending family lines, the evidence suggests that the objective of this practice in Asiatic cultures was to ensure the continuity of cultural and religious practices (Baelo Álvarez 2013).
From the moment of adoption, this individual is part of the new family and, therefore, will learn and carry out the traditions of the new family nucleus. Among these traditions, there are funeral or burial acts and practices after the death of an individual. These acts have been widely studied since the first populations of which researchers are aware. Thus, after the death of an individual from the group, as a religious–cultural practice, the body was buried or taken to a sacred or special place (Baelo Álvarez 2013). These data will be very useful for the bibliographic review, which will consist of finding possible facts of adoption in archaeological sites. This is so because researchers will have a lot of information about different types of ceremonies and burial rituals and how they focused or did not focus on the family nucleus, in such a way that researchers can discriminate family groups between different burials.
Given the widespread cult of death in almost all cultures, human remains of ancient populations have been found that, through genetic studies, have shown that not all individuals are related. One possible interpretation is to think that it could have been an act of adoption. For example, there are cases of collective (simultaneous) burials, supposedly of a family, whose individuals were not related, where the family hypothesis was ruled out with molecular analysis (Palomo-Díez et al. 2018). Adoption cannot be talked about in all cases in which researchers find unrelated individuals; it will be the researcher’s task to collect as much information as possible to be able to discriminate whether or not there is an adoption case.
Depending on space and time, adoption has undergone significant changes and modifications, following the characteristic cultural norms and values of each of the societies in which it has manifested itself as a legal–social act. From the nineteenth century (XIX century), adoptive parenthood acquired enormous relevance, interest, and social visibility. All this is a consequence of the decrease in fertility rates, the incorporation of women into the labor market (the average age at which they decide to have children was postponed), the separation of marriage from reproduction, social changes in maternity (abortion and contraception), and the increase in marital infertility rates, but adoption was already carried out in ancient societies as previously mentioned (Hernández et al. 2003).
The analysis of genetics has had a great impact on society in the field of adoption. As a result, adopted people can know who their biological parents are. The right to identity implicates a wide range of ideas, among which is the right to know one’s biological origins. In terms of adoption, in Spain, for example, this issue was overcome with the entry of Law 54/2007 of December 28 on international adoption, which led to the recognition of this right for adopted children (Echegaray 2020).
At the moment, genetic studies of parents concerned about their genetic descendants’ health are increasing. Diseases that may be in the parents as carriers who do not suffer from them and a high probability of passing on mutations that may lead their children to have a disease or malformation affect the parents’ decision to adopt (Joseph 2021).
A typical situation could be families formed by a couple with descendants of previous marriages and/or relations. However, this case could be assumed as a special type of adoption, where one or both members of the couple “adopt” the offspring of the couple. In these cases, the cultural concept of family is not consistent with the biological concept of kinship. As for marriage between people of the same sex, in the same way as divorce, the simple relationship of a couple does not make sense analyzed from a genetic point of view unless the offspring of the couple is studied. In this case, researchers can find cases where only one of the members of the couple has a biological relationship with the descendants of the family nucleus, or, in the case of marriage between persons of the same sex with adopted descendants, where there is no biological link with the descendants (Gomes et al. 2021). From a forensic point of view, many difficulties can be imagined when it comes to identifying a person whose parents or biological descendants are unknown. To solve this, many databases have been created that are used as tools to register personal DNA profiles, which will make statistical analyses between profiles of relatives and individuals to find matches (Carracedo et al. 2010).

2. Adoption: The Evolution of the Concept

Adoption has been practiced throughout Human History with its legal, social, and ethical implications (Paulissian 1999). Legally considered as taking an individual born to others as one’s descendent, adoption dates to ancient times, although the procedure has considerably changed over time and is not common to all cultures (Eugena 2015). The process is usually legal, but in some cultures adoption happens by social ritual. As part of the process of adoption, the adoptee’s legal relationship with the biological parents may be terminated (David 2003).
There are plenty of motives for a family to adopt an individual, child, or adult. The death of parents from disease, famine, or war can contribute to the possibility that an individual, mainly a child, be adopted. However, the motives to adopt have been changing accompanying the ethical, social, and legal changes in each society. Some cases of adoption in ancient societies are briefly described below, as well as the main reasons for this practice (Baelo Álvarez 2013).

2.1. Ancient Mesopotamian Society (Approximately 3250 b.C.–539 b.C.)

According to Eugena 2015, there were a significant number of orphans or abandoned children in ancient Mesopotamia. The ancient Mesopotamians had laws, social customs, and traditions that tried to protect the rights and interests of both the adopters and adoptees and the adoption contract was documented and corroborated by witnesses and sealed on tablets (Paulissian 1999).
The most famous law code is the Codex Hammurabi where, regarding adoption, it could be read, for example: “If a man adopts a child and to his name as son, and rear him, this grown son cannot be demanded back again. If a man adopts a son, and if after he has taken him, he injures his foster father and mother, then this adopted son shall return to his father’s house. If an artisan has undertaken to rear a child and teaches him his craft, he cannot be demanded back” (excerpt from the Codex Hammurabi, lines 185–188).
The most common form was adopting a newborn baby. Concerning adults, they could become part of another family by their own will, called “arrogation” (Nemet-Nejat 1998; Eugena 2015).
The reasons ancient Mesopotamians adopted children were analogous to modern ones. Childless couples adopted orphaned or abandoned children to give them protection and family. It was also common for couples with their sons and daughters to adopt a son or a daughter, who would have the same civil rights as biological children, including inheritance rights. According to Eugena (2015), slaves could be adopted too.
Several adoption documents were found in different Near Eastern cities. One main difference from the law codes is that this information does not only act upon parent–child adoption but also sibling adoption, as well as the fact that women could also adopt (Vromans 2017).

2.2. Ancient Egyptian Society (Approximately 3200 b. C–31 b.C.)

Egyptian law codes are not known; however, there are pieces of evidence indicating their existence. The presence of adoption in Egyptian law can only be endorsed by support from legal written sources. It is clear from these scarce literary examples that direct lineage heritage was very important to Egyptian culture, and succession was the main motive for adoption (Teeter 2017; Vromans 2017). As an example, a letter refers to the scribe Nakhtemmut as having “poor character”: “he is “not like a human being” because he has not caused his wife to become pregnant “like his fellow men. (…) And what is worse, he has not even adopted an orphan to remedy the situation” (Teeter 2017). Adoption in Egypt was not only a way to add to one’s family, but, legally, it was an accepted way to pass an inheritance of goods (or even high office) to someone who was not in the direct line of descent, and so in some cases adoption had nothing to do with fertility (Teeter 2017). This tradition was verified in ancient Egyptian society, at least until the year 639 A.D., when Amr ibn al-As conquered Egypt and, presumably, prohibited adoption.
The studies and investigations that have been carried out in the different archaeological sites of the Egyptian Empire and analyses of the papyrological, normative, and literary documentation present in the historical archives certify the presence of the adoptive institution during the last stage of the Old Kingdom of Egypt for dynastic purposes, political and religious. Before this stage, no reference was found in this civilization that proves the existence of the adoptive institution.
This conclusion was reached by the discovery of the French archaeologist Georges Legrain of a series of adoptive stelae, which give off a significance of adoptive paternity in the religious and dynastic context of the ancient Egyptian civilization of adoption to enthrone the “Divine Worshipers” of the Dynastic god Amon-Ra (among other deities). Through adoption, the political power and tacit hegemony of the city were ensured over the rest of the territories of Egypt (it was an instrument of political domination and dynastic consolidation). It was also considered that adoptive paternity during the Old Kingdom of Egypt had a patrimonial and succession purpose (compatible with its religious, political, and dynastic nature); the adoptee did not lose the ties that united him with his natural family and preserved his name and rights to the succession of his father by nature.
During the Ptolemaic dynasty, in the late stage of the historical period of Greco-Roman domination researchers find a series of manuscripts and documents written on papyrus that confirm the legal nature and contractual nature of adoption in Egypt by allowing a third party to, whether a man or a woman, a relative or a stranger, submit a minor under their power through the contractual figure of adoption.
In all the adoption contracts analyzed, a series of clauses were stipulated regarding the obligatory nature of the adopter to raise the minor that they were going to adopt, take care of them, educate them, and establish them as heir to the family patrimony upon their death.

2.3. Ancient Greek Society (Approximately 1200 b.C.–146 b.C.)

Adoption is an important institution in Greek life. Greek marriages were characterized by endogamy, probably to maintain the integrity of Estates, which were transmitted by inheritance through the male line. In order to succeed in an Estate, an heir needed to be recognized as the deceased’s legitimate descendant. Either a natural or an adopted son could inherit without further objection (Lindsay 2010).
The original aim of adoption was thought of as a device to ensure succession in the male line when there were no legitimate male heirs. The consequence of such an arrangement was that the adoptive son inherited all his father’s possessions and had to maintain his social and religious obligations just like an authentic son. Generally, in fourth-century cases at Athens, an adopted son was selected from near relatives. There was a preference for the adoption of agnatic relatives. Moreover, it was common to adopt a son or sons for marriage to the biological daughter or daughters.
Inheritance seems central, and it is significant whether or not the adopter died with legitimate sons. If there were none, the adoptive son became the heir, also assuming debts and other obligations related to the role. If there were other children, born later than the adoption, then the adopted son would receive a daughter’s share (Lindsay 2010).
Athenian adoptions of the fourth century b.C. appear to have the same focus as those of the fourth century b.C during the high Classical period. Adoption enabled a rich person without descendants to continue his line and to ensure that his interests were protected in old age. In the case of both Greece and Rome, adoption appears to have been, essentially, for the rich people (Lindsay 2010).

Models of Adoption in Ancient Greece

In ancient Greece and its city-states, two different models of social, civil, and family organization coexisted: the oligarchic and martial system of Sparta as opposed to the model of Athens and the Cretan city of Gortyna.
In the Spartan model, due to the characteristics of its iron sociopolitical organization (in which all children were the property of the State that was in charge of their education, upbringing, and guardianship with the intent to form vigorous, obedient, and courageous soldiers), adoption was not contemplated as a social institution and filiation or kinship was dependent on the family, whose social function was eminently reproductive and economic.
Education was based on discipline, obedience, and uniformity. Citizenship rights were obtained by the mere fact of being born in Sparta, but full citizenship was only achieved after passing different degrees, such as joining the army (with the category of citizen-soldier), accessing a plot of arable land, or contributing to banquets for social or religious groups (Baelo Álvarez 2013).

2.4. Ancient Roman Society (Approximately 753 b.C.–476 a.C.)

In Rome, the term was adoption, which also comprehended adrogatio when an adult was adopted as a son homo sui juris that was not in the power of his parent or was himself a paterfamilias. Both adoption and adrogatio gave the adopted individual the same obligations and privileges as a birth child, and they were legally entitled to inherit and carry on the family name (Eugena 2015). In Rome in the first century A.D., a prosperous but childless adult who wanted an heir would adopt a postpubescent male, often a slave, to be his son (Andrews 2004). Indeed, adoption was practiced as a way of securing an heir in ancient Rome. The emperor Trajan, for example, adopted Hadrian, who succeeded him as emperor in 117 A. D. Octavius Augustus was the adopted heir of Julius Caesar (posthumously adopted) through the process of adrogatio. He was Caesars’s nephew. Other adopted Roman emperors were Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Hadrian, and Trajan (Mitchell 2007; Eugena 2015). In the case of politicians, adoption worked also as a technique that enabled the different ideologies of succession to coexist for hundreds of years. Indeed, adoptions often seem to have happened simultaneously with the newly adopted son being married to a biological daughter of the family, at least in the case of imperial adoption practices (Mitchell 2007). Although there is very little evidence of this practice occurring with consistency among the poorer classes, this type of adoption system was a tactic frequently employed by the imperial families (Mitchell 2007).
According to Eugena (2015), firstly, only men could adopt according to their paterfamilias status. This changed later (second century A.D.), and women were also permitted to adopt.
According to Mitchell (2007), although sporadically employed by Byzantine emperors, it seems to have disappeared in the West once the Germanic kingdoms replaced the Roman imperial administration.

2.5. Ancient Muslim Societies

Children could also be received into a family by a form of adoption known as “acknowledgement of parenthood”. If there were already children in the family unit, the adopted child could not inherit family property (Mitchell 2007).

This entry is adapted from the peer-reviewed paper 10.3390/genealogy7020038


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