Early Ethnographies and Surveys

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The earliest anthropological attention to birth is contained within ethnographies devoted to other topics, rather than studies focusing directly on birthing systems (for further discussion, see Browner & Sargent, 1996). Exceptions include Montagu's (1949) discussion of Australian aboriginal understandings of fetal development and Malinowski's (1932) commentary on ideas and practices concerning birth among Trobriand Islanders. A few comparative surveys on human reproduction such as that by Ford (1964) basically provide lists of reproductive customs from societies around the world, and include some detail on pregnancy, delivery, and the postpartum period. For example, references to pregnancy in Ford's compilation on 64 societies include mention of seemingly illogical food taboos, sexual regulations, and tabooed acts to prevent miscarriage, birth defects, or stillbirth. With reference to birth, world surveys such as Ford's offer brief descriptions of techniques of delivery in preindustrial societies, noting such details as delivery position (women may sit, kneel, or squat; occasionally a standing position is reported); the role of the birth attendant in providing physical support to the parturient; restrictions on who may attend the delivery; and the location of delivery. Reflections on the topic of pain in childbirth are found from the earliest ethnographic reports, perhaps indicating widespread interest in the question of pain management as well as the speculation that childbirth may be less painful in some societies than others. Key among these is Freedman and Ferguson's (1950) consideration of painless childbirth in "primitive cultures." Principle means of addressing pain and suffering during labor include ritual performances, prayer, and sacrifice. However, in the early ethnographic accounts and surveys, little mention is made of herbal or other techniques of accelerating labor or intervening in complicated births.

In contrast, more interest is expressed in the widespread concern with disposal of the placenta, or afterbirth. Dating from early reports such as that by Malinowski (1929), anthropological publications from numerous societies include reference to the powerful meanings associated with the placenta. Techniques of expelling the placenta, such as massage or pressure, and the ritual disposal of the placenta, have been widely described. Disposal of the placenta is rarely random or careless. Often it is burned, or buried in a significant location. Sometimes the placenta is preserved to later create a medicine or to use in ritual practice. Early discussions of the placenta also mention methods of cutting the umbilical cord (knife, arrow, other sharp implement), preferred timing of cord-cutting (after the placenta is expelled, for instance), and means of tying the cord. Little information is available in the earliest studies regarding treatment of the mother postpartum, except to indicate that she may wash, and is often secluded for a ritualized period of time. A few societies are described as employing techniques to prevent excessive bleeding. Dietary proscriptions and prescriptions are also noted, as are sexual restrictions during the postpartum period. Approximately half the world's societies in the ethnographic record have lengthy postpartum sex taboos, sometimes encouraging abstinence for as long as two years (Whiting, 1964).

Regarding the regulation of postpartum sexuality, Whiting notes that in many societies, a brief period following the birth of a child is identified during which sexual intercourse is taboo, to allow the mother to recover from childbirth (Whiting, 1964, p. 518). In those societies practicing a more extended period of sexual abstinence, the explanation usually focuses on the well-being of the infant, suggesting that if a nursing mother were to become pregnant, her breastmilk would be contaminated, thus placing the infant at risk. The prolonged postpartum sex taboo may thus represent a cultural means of protecting the well-being of infants by prolonging the nursing period and encouraging adequate spacing between births.

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