Home History A Global History of Child Death: Mortality, Burial, and Parental Attitudes
Infanticide among Prehistoric Groups
Fire brought about the institution of cooking to the Homo erectus which facilitated the development of the parent-child relationship. For example, cooked food became a consistency that young children could eat in lieu of breast milk, thus hastening weaning and minimizing birth spacing. It introduced the division of labor as women cooked the food, and reinforced pair-bonding and the creation of the family unit. Further, the bond between mother and newborn that formed created a sense of empathy within the mother. Babies “elicited nurturing”, not only from their own mothers but from other maternal figures within the community. Infant sharing among communities of women also facilitated what Hrdy postulates as “a need to help”. The evolution of family and maternal love aside, infanticide was widely practiced when the demands of mothering exceeded the abilities of the mother. Infanticide was intra-familial. Thus, this collaborative parenting seemed to support infanticide as parents’ personal responsibility and concern for their children was diluted by the responsibility and concern by the community.43
Infanticide, by reasons of physical defect or lack of maternal resources evolved into infant sacrifice by way of Paleolithic magic systems. Dervin postulates that as the cooking hearth became the center of the community, it evolved into the altar. Early humans began to communicate with spirits that they began to believe could be appeased with sacrifice in order to avoid natural disasters. Consequently, evidence of cannibalism was also observed.44
Parental grief, if one wants to ponder whether it existed among prehistoric peoples, could be a complicated matter. Neanderthal families were not nuclear in the sense of the word as we know it today. As noted above, in prehistoric societies parenting of a child was often shared by the community. There was cross-mothering, cross-siblings (cousins), and men often swapped women.45 Mothers may have had several partners who could have been the potential fathers of her children. In fact, it was in her best interest to lay with more than one male while pregnant. Some anthropologists contend that when two males have lain with a woman just before or at pregnancy, those men would consider themselves co-fathers, which is also termed “partible paternity”. An additional father can help a baby survive. On the other hand, a male who invests time and energy to feed a helpless infant must be sure of its paternity, or the genes of another male may benefit. While infanticide was very common, the “loss of a wanted child is enormously costly to any human mother, making it best not to divulge but precisely to confuse accurate paternity information.. .”46 Thus making the case for a mother to take several partners during pregnancy, particularly if one of them proved to be a poor father or dies.
The population explosion of Homo sapiens is inconsistent with female tolerance of infanticide. Large numbers of large-brained, slow to develop children required quality child care in order to be raised to maturity. Thus the bonds that were cultivated between parent and child explain, for the most part, the move away from a culture of infanticide.
The exclusion of babies from newborn to one year of age at many sites has concerned archaeologists and anthropologists, even as various explanations have given way to assumptions of cultural practices. The absence of many infants from the archaeological record has been explained with the possibility that the remains of infants and children are more susceptible to disintegration after burial. However, the Belleview study found that the skeletons of infants and children do not decay more rapidly than those of adults.47 Sub-adults, however, may be buried in more shallow graves, and therefore more likely to be disturbed or destroyed.
Given the evidence, it appears that in many cultures, infants were not always ascribed a status commensurate with that of older children and adults. Therefore, they were buried elsewhere. Scott warns that interpretations of burial sites which lack infants, or sites where urn burials are common should not simply be explained as evidence of infanticide. Cultural contexts must be considered, and caution should be exercised before observing patterns where they do not exist. Children and infants in particular are often given a liminal status which precludes them from adult and adolescent funeral rites and burial locations.48
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