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Home arrow Health arrow Bodies and Lives in Ancient America: Health Before Columbus
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Vignettes California coast

Although in a seemingly lush coastal and island environment, the California coastal region was anything but that. The ancient Chumash communities experienced a number of environmental changes that decreased resources and the ability of people to have enough to eat. Over time, there was a definite increase in anemia in infants (Walker 1985). There was an aggregation of people in areas with limited resources, and this likely also caused contamination of freshwater sources with enteric bacteria.

The prevalence of porotic hyperostosis in a population with a heavy dietary dependence on marine resources shows that among prehistoric American Indians, this condition is not always associated with an iron- and protein-deficient diet of cultigens. It seems likely that high nutrient losses associated with diarrheal disease are often more significant in the underlying causes of anemia (porotic hyperostosis) than a low dietary intake of essential nutrients (Walker 1986). In most of these communities along the coast of California or on the islands off the coast, Walker documented cases of anemia in individuals aged at about 3 to 4 years, but these were in a healed state, suggesting that anemia was present and a problem for infants during the first years of life. Those that survived showed only the healed lesions later in life. Walker also found that individuals who are anemic early in life die before reaching adulthood at a higher rate than individuals who never experienced anemia (1986: 349).

The problems of anemia from a combination of poor diet and bacterial infections were not just located in the infants and children. For young males aged 18 to 30, about 24% of them died with cases of anemia whereas for age-matched females in their peak reproductive years, 35% died with cases of anemia. At any given time then, about a third of the reproductively aged females were experiencing anemia, which can exacerbate problems with pregnancy and delivery. Having anemia means that the blood is not delivering oxygen as well as it should be, so there will be periods of tiredness if the condition becomes chronic. Most pregnant females take iron supplements today to ensure that they have plenty in their system to meet the needs of the fetus (McArdle et al. 2014).

While much more information has been provided about ancestral Chumash health during the period of contact and missionization in the California coastal regions, Walker and Johnson (2002: 66) provide some possible insights into other practices concerning newborns. They state that “elderly Chumash consultants interviewed . . . at the beginning of the 20th century verified that infanticide was practiced in the ‘old days’ when deformed babies were born and that abortions were sometimes performed by ‘eating medicine.’”

In a study of historic use of medicinal plants used by Chumash women, Adams and Garcia (2006) demonstrated that a number of naturally growing plants in the California coastal areas were relied on for a number of ailments specific to reproductive-aged females. For example, Iris root was used to accelerate the birthing process because of its chemical properties, and chewing the root of the viola plant could ease labor pains. Passage of the afterbirth was facilitated by a decoction made of Trichostema leaves that Chumash women historically drank (Adams and Garcia 2006: 128). The authors further note that there were many restrictions placed on adults after the birth of an infant including that the “husband could not touch his wife until the baby could stand on its feet by itself” (2006: 127).

This brief overview of data from the skeletal remains of newly born infants and young adult females suggests that even in a place which provided fishing and the possibilities of foraging and agriculture, there were hardships brought on by changes in the climate that made food resources and drinking water more scarce, and these hardships likely made it difficult to ensure that each pregnancy and birth was successful and that infants all survived. There was population growth over time, so the frequency of maternal and/or infant deaths did not contribute to the decline in population size, but it must have had an impact on creating subgroups of mothers and their babies, who were more vulnerable to disease and early death.

 
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