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Home arrow Health arrow Bodies and Lives in Ancient America: Health Before Columbus
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To sum up

Being a child in ancient America would have been dangerous and risky for some. After successful weaning, exposure to the world would have meant exposure to infectious agents and a possibly insufficient diet. Exploring the social world of children is still a difficult prospect, particularly through the lens of human remains. While studies have been conducted using ceramics and toys archaeologically (e.g., Kamp et al. 1999), it is generally believed that indicators such as entheses (muscle markers) are unreliable for individuals younger than 18 years. Typically, health indicators about stress, trauma, and exposure to infectious diseases (as in the preceding case studies) are the only empirical data that can be reliably used.

There is no doubt that the death of a child was a momentous and important life-history event that was marked with rituals and social activities. The burial of children under house floors has been interpreted as a desire to keep the child close to the family in multiple regions under study. Childhood is a time of enculturation, when children learned what it means to be part of their community. They begin to acquire the skills necessary to take over adult roles, including gender-specific work skills and ritual activities. They go through rites of passage, gain cultural knowledge, and become full members of society.

The experience of childhood varied greatly, as seen in the case studies. Whether a group was agricultural or foraging or ate maize or consumed marine resources had a differential impact on the health of children. Agricultural groups weaned their children with different foods, and agricultural children were exposed to different diseases and social stresses.

The vignettes provided show a variety of ecological and social adaptations. Ecologically, groups took advantage of the resources at their disposal, from rich agricultural lands in the Mississippian/Lower Illinois River Valley to dry farming in the Pueblo Southwest and the exploitation of marine resources along the California coast. A great variety of social complexity is inferred from these data in such things as differential burial of infants (possibly indicating they were not seen as full members of the society) in the Southwest to rich elaborate burials of infants and children and the use of infants as dedicatory burials in the Mississippian. These are reflective of ideological differences in the use of cultural constructs to apportion resources and maintain social cohesion. In this way, burials can be seen as a form of social capital that ties people to specific locations and legitimizes a predominant social order (Osterholtz 2015; Sofaer 2006).

 
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