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  • Paleo Family Planning Today? August 23, 2016

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Prehistoric , trackback


    There is a whole literature out there on paleo food, the idea that we are digital men and women living in stone age bodies and that we need to eat in a stone age fashion. But what about the idea that we should also live other aspects of our lives as stone agers among the skyscrapers and plane-crowded skies? An intriguing example of this is child-bearing. What is the natural number of children for a woman to have in a lifetime? Human societies have given lots of different answers to this question: from ten or twelve in medieval and early modern societies, to 1.8 in post-industrial western countries. However, in hunter-gatherer societies there seems to be a relatively standard number: and that is perhaps the closest we can come to a natural paleo response to the question. A typical woman in a paleo society would have had anything from 3 to 5 children. She would have had her first child in her mid late teens, then she would have had children every five years or so: perhaps half would have made it to adulthood, a surprisingly number looking at some of the grim contexts in which human beings have lived; of course, hunter-gatherer societies are not supposed to get bigger.

    Why so few children? Much is made of the idea that hunter-gatherers just can’t do with kids popping out every year: they are on the move and free… However, the single biggest factor seems to have been the long (by our standards) periods of nursing in pre-neolithic societies, dramatically reducing fertility. Breast-feeding is not the most reliable form of contraception: particularly if you are breast-feeding just a couple of times a day, as with many modern mothers. But in a paleo society (thinking of modern hunter-gatherer societies) a mother would breast feed frequently, up to four years of age. Beach cannot speak to the advantages of health from late breastfeeding: though he has been fascinated at the way that in Italy anyone breastfeeding after a year and a half will be made to feel very uncomfortable. But the striking change in family life – again against modern wisdom – is, meanwhile, that sibling rivalry plummets. If you are five when your baby brother is born you will likely have semi-maternal or semi-paternal relations: whereas if you are three there will be intense, if not hateful rivalry for many years (or for life). Think also of family patterns. If, in a paleo society, you make it to fifteen then your chances of making it to about 60 are relatively good. A sixty year old woman then might have five children: aged 40, 35, 30,  25 and 20 at her death. She would live to see grandchildren and just conceivably newborn great grandchildren. It is an interesting contrast, say, with Roman society where you were unlikely to live past fifty and where you were rather unlikely to see your children’s children growing up.

    More on childbearing: drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com

    Leif, 29 Aug 2016, Dr. Beachcombing’s post concerning the natural number of children for a woman to have in a lifetime seems to flow along the lines of Rousseau: hunter gathers lived in societies that were, if not ideal, at least stable. There are alternative viewpoints. Steven LeBlanc and Katherine Register, in their 2004 book ‘Constant battles, why we fight’ [New York: St. Martin’s Griffin] propose an model in which human population grows very rapidly in times of plenty. After a few years, the population outstrips the ability of its territory to provide food (the carrying capacity), and people choose warfare as an alternative to slow starvation. LeBlanc maintains this model applies to hunter-gathering as well as to more modern societies. In ‘Population growth, carrying capacity, and conflict [Current anthropology. Volume 44, Number 1, February 2003], Dwight Read and Steven A. LeBlanc assert: Most arguments about human societal development favor slow to almost nonexistent growth and populations well below carrying capacity for most of human history since at least the Middle Paleolithic, and the archaeological record supports this view. However, potential, if not actual, rapid growth at almost all times and places appears to be a more accurate description of human reproductive capability.’ They identify four factors that interact with group population dynamics: resource density, the geographic and temporal scale for resource variability, the production and decision-making units, the form of social organization, and the effect of group competition (intra- and intersocietal) ‘. And they argue that these components affect (among other things) ‘within-group feedback mechanisms between resource availability and fertility behavior modeled as a cost-decision process based on the self-interests of family units. ‘ An example can be found in Lina Wertmuller’s 1975 film Seven beauties’. After Pasqualino Frafuso (Giancarlo Giannini) survives a Nazi concentration camp, he returns home to his sweetheart and says: ‘I want children. Many children. 10, 20. And they must be very strong. Look at the crowds out there. In a few more years, they will be murdering each other, families slaughtered just for an apple. They can do nothing to a family so large. That will be our defense, understand. We’ll get married. The sooner the better.’ Cheers, Leif

    Malcolm S writes in, 25 Sep 2016, ‘I have serious reservations about hunter-gatherers having an average of only 3-5 children. I remember reading the Man the Hunter symposium back in the 1970s (sorry I can’t lay hands on it at short notice), and reading that Aboriginal women in Arnhem Land had up to 20 children. Perhaps I’m misremembering, but it was certainly a lot. What I do remember clearly was a 50% infanticide rate. I also remember clearly that the number of children among Kalahari Bushmen women was much lower – perhaps 3 – 5. At the time I noted the differences, and I put it down to infanticide. Because the Bushmen did not practice infanticide, natural selection had weeded out those who bred more children than they could support. The Aborigines were not subject to this selection pressure simply because they short-circuited the natural process by infanticide’