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PREGNANCY AND BIRTH IN ANCIENT AMERICA

Thinking about pregnancy, birth, and the first year of life for moms and babies for cultures in the past is very challenging. From the bioarchaeological record, it can be partially inferred from patterns in morbidity and mortality for infant and adult female human remains. Additional lines of evidence come from the archaeological context. Because almost all of the indigenous groups living in ancient America have living descendants today, their oral histories and traditions may also provide some clues to what pregnancy, birth, and the first year of life were like in ancient times. Ethnohistoric, archival, and ethnographic information is sometimes useful for broadening an understanding of these momentous life history events. However, information from historic and contemporary writings about Native Americans cannot be mapped directly onto the past and they are not necessarily good analogies for the past (Figure 3.1) . Ethnographic and historic documents can only be used as guides to formulating a set of possibilities for what might have shaped events in the past. All indigenous cultures have undergone both large and small changes in the intervening years between their ancestral past, their tumultuous history with colonial powers, and their contemporary existence today in the U.S.

Life-history theory provides a framework for thinking about human adaptation and human variation with an eye to including stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood into explaining some of the differences that are measured or observed for different cultures and at different points in the evolutionary history of humans. Typically what is studied in life-history analyses are things such as birth, growth, diet, morbidity and mortality, and the biocultural processes tied to these events (Hill 1993). Reproductive strategies figure prominently in life history theory because the timing of births, birth spacing, fertility, and infant and maternal mortality figure importantly in the maintenance and vitality of communities

Hopi Indian mother carrying her baby on her back outside an adobe dwelling, circa 1900 (CHS-3740). By Pierce, C.C. (Charles C.), 1861-1946 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

FIGURE 3.1 Hopi Indian mother carrying her baby on her back outside an adobe dwelling, circa 1900 (CHS-3740). By Pierce, C.C. (Charles C.), 1861-1946 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

(Chisholm 1993). Some of these human events and processes can be reconstructed for past societies, but many details are missing for past people.

Yet, of this much we can be sure: Humans living in every corner of the world during every period going back thousands of years likely dealt with social dynamics defined by cultural ideologies linked to formalities about mating, pregnancy, birth, and health status — as people do today (Trevathan 2011). Thus, baseline information about pregnancy and birth can be used to formulate more specific questions about health during life-history events for various periods and cultures in the past. The birth of a child within the interwoven axes of biology, culture, and environment is a major event. Cultural and environmental factors entwine in ways that affect conception, the infant while in utero and sharing resources with the mother, and then during and after birth when every aspect of care regarding the child is bounded by ideology, subsistence and diet, social organization and politics, customs and ritual, and religious and metaphysical beliefs (Stone and Walrath 2006; Trevathan and McKenna 1994).

The complexity of women’s roles in ancient societies cannot be underscored enough. As Adams and Garcia (2006: 125) summarize their notion regarding the lives of Chumash Indian women in historic times:

Women were the basis of village life. They kept the village going by giving birth, caring for children, gathering and processing acorns, prickly pear cactus fruits and other plant foods, and many other activities. They were responsible for the health of their families and cared for and nurtured their children, husbands, parents and relatives.

It is difficult to capture this kind of interwoven complexity for women in the past. The best that can be done is to use data derived from human remains and the archaeological context to hint at the range of possibilities for how this played out in the ancient past.

This chapter provides a selection of studies on ancient groups from the four core areas (California coast, Pueblo Southwest, Mississippian/Lower Illinois River Valley, and the Georgia Bight) regarding what pregnancy, birth and the first year of life might have been like for mother and infant in ancient America. This overview is by no means extensive or complete. It represents a sampling of the kinds of information bioarchaeologists use to think about moms and babies in times and places for which there are no written records. An examination of birth and infant health leads directly to thinking about maternal health during pregnancy and just after giving birth. These are controversial issues even today that are fraught with questions about the role of mothers in shaping their infant’s health and welfare and the various ways that parenting activities affect the health of their children. For example, these kinds of issues for ancient children are addressed in the edited volume titled Tracing Childhood, Bioarchaeological Investigations of Early Lives in Antiquity (Thompson et al. 2014). Crosscultural case studies from the ancient world are presented on the ways that children are shaped by their culture but also how children shape the cultures they live in.

In general though, there simply are not many focused analyses of infancy and birth in the bioarchaeological literature. There are a number of practical reasons why there are so few studies of infant health in the ancient world. The first is that many skeletal collections contain few infant remains because of the problems already discussed regarding size and fragility. Infant bones are difficult to measure due to breakage and the fact that they are not yet fused. A further challenge is that the death assemblage represents an accumulation of individuals who died over sometimes hundreds of years. A final problem is that cemetery-based studies do not represent the healthy or “average” infant but, rather, those who died.

This final challenge involves having a glimpse into causes of death but not as much insight into healthy infants and children. We essentially have access to the ancient morgue, but not to the living, healthy, growing infants who went on to become the adults and elderly in any given culture. Bioarchaeologists see infants and children with abnormal changes and lesions on their bones having to do with killers such as infectious disease, anemia, scurvy, and rickets (Lewis 2007).

 
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