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Home arrow Health arrow Bodies and Lives in Ancient America: Health Before Columbus
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Pueblo Southwest

The ancient American Southwest was a challenging place to be a farmer, especially in the area around the Colorado Plateau with its higher elevation. A large number of archaeological sites from the periods ad 900 up to contact have created a very large database of indigenous lifeways (Cordell 1997). One area, Black Mesa, was populated by farmers living in small groups in what was a remote, marginal area. These people are the ancestors to the contemporary Hopi people who still live on the same mesa tops in that region of northern Arizona. The population cultivated maize, gourds, and beans, and supplemented their diet by gathering natural vegetation such as wild grasses, cacti, and pinon nuts. Their diet also included the meat of smaller animals such as rabbits and prairie dogs that were found in the region (Martin et al. 1991). Because of the marginal and sometimes harsh Southwestern environment, the Black Mesa people were just able to meet their dietary requirements, a precarious nutritional situation that was detrimental to the health of newborns and to some mothers.

For newborns and infants living in settled desert farming communities, life was tough. Looking at long-bone lengths plotted against dental age, infants living on Black Mesa show a period of rapid growth until the age of 2 and then growth is much slower than it should be suggesting the beginning ofweaning stress (discussed in the next chapter). Comparing the growth of infants from Black Mesa with others indigenous groups (the Arikara from South Dakota and Dickson Mounds, Illinois) the growth of Black Mesa infants is below that of other ancient children as well as that of children today (Martin et al. 1991: 87).

Enamel hypoplasias from the deciduous teeth of the infants from Black Mesa likewise reveal troubles for the newborns. From the deciduous dentition we can observe a special segment of the population — newborns and infants that failed to survive. Several that died soon after birth showed dental defects that corresponded with enamel growth during the third trimester suggesting that the uterine environment was stressed, likely because of morbidity or undernutrition of the mother (Martin et al. 1991: 103). Also, in the first year of life, 83.3% of the infants had periosteal reactions (infections) on their long bones at the time of death. The death of infants this young suggest that the vagaries of life in a marginal area for agriculture may have contributed to infant morbidity and mortality.

One example of the ways that paleopathological analyses can be used to reconstruct maternal morbidity and mortality comes from the Black Mesa sample of females with complete pelves (hip bones) aged between 20 and 40 years. The study was designed to see if any of females dying in their young adulthood years had constricted or flattened birth canals. Measurements from these pelves were compared with age-matched males from the group and well-nourished contemporaries (Martin 2000: 280; Martin and Seefeldt 1991). The Black Mesa female pelves were compared to the female pelves from the archaeological populations of Indian Knoll, Pecos Pueblo, and Libben (Tague 1989). In general, when comparing the young females with older females (those that did not die young) and age-matched males, young females had predominantly obstetric measurements that were transverse oval (or platypelloid) with a brim index of 78.4. Females who lived through the childbearing years had a brim index of 81.1, indicating a rounded, gynecoid shape.

One individual stood out in this analysis of obstetrical dimensions. A Black Mesa female aged 15 to 18 had a highly contracted and asymmetrical pelvic inlet. Her inlet anteroposterior (front to back) dimension is radically different when measured from the middle of the sacral promontory to the left pubis (8.3 cm) as to the right pubis (7.1 cm). It is doubtful that a fully developed fetus could pass through this contracted pelvic inlet without a high probability of maternal and perinatal morbidity (Martin and Seefeldt 1991). This study further suggested that many of the Black Mesa females had contracted pelvic inlets — common to those who lack optimum levels of nourishment — which is a condition that can lead to any number of obstetric complications, including maternal and perinatal mortality.

Females are obviously capable of giving birth successfully to their babies under all kinds of trying and adverse conditions, so the interpretation of these data point to a tipping point for maternal health (Figure 3.4). Stone (In Press) provides a systematic review of all of the circumstances that can predispose some young mothers to early death. Almost all of these are located in the political-economic and social structures of the culture that include inadequate dietary resources, long periods

A Hopi mother with her infant, titled “In th

FIGURE 3.4 A Hopi mother with her infant, titled “In the cradle-basket.” While the birth process may have been difficult for some women in the past, it is likely that the majority of infants were successfully delivered. Credit: Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library; Edward S. Curtis’s “The North American Indian2003. http://digital.library.northwestern.edu/curtis/ The North American Indian (1907—1930) v.12, The Hopi ([Seattle]: E.S. Curtis; [Cambridge, MA: The University Press], 1922), Facing page 56.

of hard work, abuse and neglect while still-growing young girls, and a variety of other negative conditions. These likely played a role in the past as well affecting the ability of some mothers and babies to survive. Because population size generally increased over time in the ancient Pueblo Southwest, it is clear that females successfully birthed many infants. But it is important to remember that the environmental constraints on successful farming likely placed some individuals at risk for poorly developed skeletal structures such as the pelvis, and this may have led to problems in birthing for some.

 
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