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Home arrow History arrow A Global History of Child Death: Mortality, Burial, and Parental Attitudes



The Kaliai ofWestern New Britain had no ritual burial for infants. The boundary between infants and full humanity was identified by the ability of a person to discuss his or her dreams. Therefore, there was a lack of consequences for infanticide.

Infanticide was usually practiced when “unnatural” births occurred; multiple births or children born with deformities.16

The Papuans of British New Guinea are reported to have buried their children alive when a parent or other caregiver passed away so that he or she could care for the parent in the afterlife. Additionally, the Papuans practice cannibalism. Murder is deemed as a mode of releasing feelings of anger, grief or anxiety.17

Among the Pacific Atoll islanders abandonment was rare, although when practiced, infanticide was rooted in superstition. For example, as in many other indigenous cultures, if twins or a deformed infant was born, the newborn(s) were killed. The Maori and Polynesians practiced foundation sacrifices, offering a son when a building was constructed. The Tokelaes of Lind Islands controlled their population by limiting the number of children born to a family to four. After that number was reached, infants were buried directly after birth. The Tonga strangled sick babies. If the Tonga perceived an angry god was present, a two year old was sacrificed by strangulation. In Papua New Guinea infanticide of girls was practiced until recently.18

While the wartime killing of infants by outsiders was and is common, some groups in distress, such as the Tlingit of North America and the Maori, have killed their own crying infants to avoid being found out when hiding. In another example, any infants and children who slowed down the Tasmanian’s escape from Europeans were killed.19

In the mythology of the Aborigines of Australia and Groote Eylandt the ancient earth mother gives birth to all of the spirit babies. The Aborigines believe that the spirit of a victim of infanticide goes to the “store of spirit children” that are waiting to be reborn. A recurring theme of the burial of the young, especially among those who are victims of infanticide or sacrifice, is that the young are released to negotiate between the living and the dead.20

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