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A Very Interesting Article.

I ran across this the other day and shook my head. As an anthropologist, I have to answer back! You see, anthropologists (including archaeologists) are humans who are shaped by the culture in which they grow up. So from about 1880-1960, archaeologists and cultural anthropologists from the United States and western Europe happened to notice aspects of so-called “primitive” cultures that confirmed their belief that there has always been a clear and firm gender division of labor. They gathered all kinds of evidence that men “hunt” and do “public” work while women “gather” and do “family” work. (Later anthropologists found that this clear, easy divide was often made up by the anthropologists who somehow failed to see things like men doing lots and lots of gathering because hunts were so few and far between. And, my favorite, is a recent article by an archaeologist who examines body weight and determined that men (fathers and brothers) must have done most of the carrying of toddlers and small children on frequent, long walks.)

These happen to be the same years that homebirth midwives were being pushed out of their profession by medical doctors. Birth was moving more and more into hospitals until, after WWII, there were more hospital births than homebirths in the United States. (The UK and Canada had a slightly different, but similar, history.) Women were increasingly drugged during labor and the rates of cesarean section climbed through the 1900s (and SOARED at the end of the century). Birth was increasingly seen as “dangerous” and “risky.” Hiring medical specialists to intervene in the process was a sign of prosperity and progress.

So it is no wonder that archaeologists (mostly men!) of the time interpreted the fossil record in light of this insight that birth is “risky” for human women. Indeed, human pelves are significantly different in shape from those of our nearest relatives (other apes). This “story” about the trade-off between bipedalism (walking upright on two feet, which ultimately changes the shape of pelvic bones) and giving birth to our young has been the dominant story for a long time.

Luckily, some anthropologists who grew up with feminism have taken a second look at that fossil record.  I love reading the work of Dana Walrath, an anthropologist who studies the evolution of human pelves (the plural of pelvis — cool, eh?). She believes that it has been pure sexism in archaeology and medicine that created this “birth is dangerous because of bipedalism” story (though understandable, given our cultural history). The feminist story is that we human women are amazing creatures who are incredibly highly-evolved to give birth to our babies. She’s got the bones to prove it! Check out her articles such as
1. Walrath D. (2006) Gender, Genes, and the Evolution of Human Birth, in Feminist Anthropology: Past, Present, and Future. PL Geller and MK Stockett (eds.), Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
2. Walrath D. (2003) Re-thinking pelvic typologies and the human birth mechanism. Current Anthropology 44(1):5-31.

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