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To sum up

Life in America for the earliest inhabitants of the core regions discussed above suggest that environmental factors (coastal, island, desert, river valley, inland) and subsistence activity (foraging, mixed economy, agriculture, intensified agriculture) had a lot to do with the general health of moms and their babies. Climate change as documented for the California coastal and island peoples as well as for the American Southwest made farming, fishing, and gathering sometimes inadequate in providing the full range of caloric and nutrient essentials necessary for young mothers and their newborn infants. Although this is not surprising, the details obtained from the skeletal records based on enamel hypoplasias, growth of the long bones, the mother’s obstetric dimensions and rates of anemia together help provide an interpretation for why some females in young adulthood and some newborn infants did not survive.

An anthropological approach to thinking about the role of pregnancy and birth in the life history of females from any period demands that adaptation be viewed within a framework of flexibility and resilience. If we are to really comprehend the positions of women in different societies, much more specific information on the long range and cyclic patterns of their lives is needed. While some of this information can be gleaned from the skeletal remains as summarized here, these data are limited and not without problems. However, their existence affords a number of opportunities for studying women and reproduction in a broader temporal and spatial context for ancient America.

The data here for the core areas show that some females during peak reproductive years are predisposed to a higher risk of morbidity and mortality due to the stresses placed on them. And, some newborns also were at higher risk because of the vagaries of infections and nutritional problems that affected their survival rates. The picture that emerges from these studies is at odds with the older notion (and stereotype) of ancient populations in which all women were assumed to be biologically attuned to bear children easily and at full fecundity levels. In reality, the effects of nutritional stress and disease, in the absence of supplements and antibiotics, placed some mothers and some babies at risk. The implications for such a situation speak directly to the need for assessing the range of variability in human groups for being able to accommodate and deal with stressors in their particular setting back then and today.

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