Infanticide: A Sad Note

The darker side of the hg life we have been exploring is that infanticide was practiced widely. It was done as a reaction to birth spacing that was too narrow and also as a consequence of the lack of capacity for the parent to care adequately for two very young children at the same time. Clearly, resource availability must have been an issue as well; given that and the aforementioned, this form of population control was adaptive, and it kept hg populations at a sustainable level and ensured a very high quality of life for those individuals who did survive.

          Joseph Birdsell and Lewis Binford regarded infanticide as the key factor in hg population control, estimating that it may have been as high as 50 percent in the Pleistocene era (Birdsell 1968). It is found among the majority of hg peoples, including the !Kung in the Kalahari and the Copper Eskimo of northern Canada. The conclusion has been reached by some researchers that in many populations infanticide is quite normal and adaptive and is in fact widespread in the animal kingdom. In certain species of birds, for example, the first-hatched chick kills its younger siblings. This is all related to the competition for resources, fundamentally. In the case of human societies, it is done to improve the mother's chances for survival, or that of the older offspring. Short of infanticide, nurturance may be reduced and offspring neglected. After a conference held at Cornell University in 1982, "Infanticide in Animals and Men," the editors wrote, "Virtually every category of infanticide which has been described for other animals can be documented anecdotally for the human species." Researchers, after examining infanticide in eighty-four societies, found that it existed in about one-third of these as a way of eliminating defective offspring or dealing with too-frequent birth spacing. Among seventy-two of the societies studied, 36 percent reported the practice of killing an infant born too soon after its older sibling. This was more likely among hgs and less likely among agropastoral societies. The general consensus among anthropologists, writes Birdsell (1968), is that "infanticide by parents has deep roots in human history, and has probably been part of an adaptive repertoire since Pleistocene times (Lee 1980; Fabbro 1978; Hausfater and Hrdy 1984; Lee and DeVore 1968; Berman 2000).

          Marjorie Shostak tells the story of Nisa, a !Kung woman. Nisa was weaned when her mother was pregnant with Kumsa, her younger brother. She was too young to be weaned, and the process made her miserable. One day, she and her mother left camp to gather food, during which excursion, her mother sat down under a tree and gave birth to Kumsa. She told Nisa to go back to camp to get her digging stick, so she could bury Kumsa. Nisa wept and said she would much rather her brother live. They argued, and finally agreed that they would keep the baby and he would nurse, not Nisa. Of course, nursing two children is literally impossible. The decision to kill an infant was never taken lightly, but when there was no choice, the women would give birth alone and proceed to bury the child almost immediately. The traditional !Kung belief was that an individual was not really a person until they came back to camp, so to them, infanticide was not regarded as homicide. But it was still considered a very grave act (Shostak 1983).

          This may all seem shocking (or worse), but it behooves us not to impose our framework on theirs. Overpopulation is a severe problem, which has repercussions at every level of the human psyche and biology, ultimately. It is wrong to see infanticide as a callous act; it was perceived as necessary and undoubtedly was, in terms of survival and quality of life, not just for the mother but for everyone. Studies done among the Eskimo reveal that the children who were allowed to live were loved dearly. Regarding infanticide, we must ask whether the proliferation of unwanted and abused children is the better choice. Berman writes that hg life was "based on a brutal process of selection. But it seems to be the case that once the selection was made, it was probably a better life, one largely free from the ideology of hierarchy and manipulation." (Hausfater and Hrdy 1984; Scrimshaw 1984; Daly and Wilson 1984; Berman 2000)

          One can see that infanticide indeed was quite brutal, but all things considered, it does appear that it was necessary for most hg groups to engage in it. What was at stake was the very continuation or potential degradation of hg society itself, even though mothers did it for reasons quite specific to themselves. Both mothers' lives and the life of the larger society could be in jeopardy without this practice. Indeed, if it had not been in place, hgs could not have continued as hgs, due mainly to the potentially catastrophic effects of population pressure. A terrible practice, but one in which we had no choice but to engage for survival. I would like to close with a quotation of Marvin Harris (1977), who may have summed it up better than anyone: "Our stone age ancestors were thus perfectly capable of maintaining a stationary population, but there was a cost associated with it -- the waste of infant lives. This cost lurks in the background of prehistory as an ugly blight in what might otherwise be mistaken for a Garden of Eden."