In my previous post, "Detachment Parenting," I shared some results from a recent literature survey on cultural models of infancy. I identified six factors that typically cloud a newborn's future ranging from uncertain paternity to parasitic infestation. If the fate of the majority of babies is in doubt, it follows that the community into which a child is born would be reluctant to make a deep emotional investment until the child's viability was confirmed. Our survey revealed that most societies do not automatically confer personhood upon the newborn. Instead the child is considered to exist in a liminal or intermediate state between a spirit or other world and the world of the living. In fact, it is very common to create a kind of external womb for the newborn-denying its birth.
- "For the first three days of life the [Lepcha] baby is considered to be still in the womb and all the pre-natal precautions have to be observed. It is not even referred to as a human child; it is called a rat-child." (1)
- "The new-born [Vlach] child sleeps tightly swaddled in a wooden rocking cradle which is enveloped from end to end in a blanket, so that he lies in a kind of dark airless tent." (2)
- "...the post-partum [Japanese] child remains, inseparably a part of its mother. The infant continues to develop within the protective, womb-like environment of its mother's presence, excluding others." (3)
Delayed personhood is accounted for in various ways and we find several folk theories that explain why this happens. "Not Yet Ripe" is one such theory. The denial of personhood is based on the patent deficiencies of the infant as a social being. Various attributes are singled out including, for example, the infant's softness and lack of motor control. Significantly, these folk theories are used both to explain the basis of non-personhood but also include prescriptions for turning the babies into persons; they have "directive force." (4) For example, the extremely widespread use of swaddling or cradleboard to restrain the infant is seen as compensating for and minimizing the long-term effects of the infant's softness and lack of motor control. Heat, smoke, massage and special foods also "harden" the baby.
- "[Navajo] babies are kept ... in the cradle to make them straight and strong. Some women let their children lie on sheepskins and roll about, but they are always weak, sick children." (5)
- "Asked why infants are swaddled, [Nurzay] women explained that the newborn baby's flesh is oma (lit. unripe) like uncooked meat, and that only by swaddling will it become strong (chakahosi) and solid like cooked (pokh) meat." (6)
- "[Azande] mother and child are both secluded after birth...at the conclusion of this period a feast is held. The child is brought out of the hut and is passed through the smoke of a specially prepared fire of green leaves...the child is not named by its parents nor is the midwife paid until it is certain that the child is hale." (7)
Other areas singled out as needing ripening to transform the infant into a human being are: speech; self-locomotion; acquisition of social knowledge and skills and; intelligence. Interestingly, there is relatively little consensus regarding the age at which personhood is achieved. This could range from a few days to eight or ten years.
- "...not until the kulio (from kungh + li, lit: head shaving), on the eighth day after birth, does the [Mandinka] infant move into the status of a fully recognized member of the family." (8)
- "An [Ovimbundu] baby is born pink and it is only when he turns dark at the sixth or eighth day that he shows the first indication of becoming a person (omunu). He shows further promise in that direction with his first show of sense, but all through childhood he is...only a potential person." (9)
In a strict statistical sense, the most common rationale for withholding personhood is that the infant itself has not yet committed to being human. It is suspended between two worlds, the human world and the "other" world of spirits, ghosts, ancestors and, gods. There are several variations on this theme. In one version there is a distinct tension between the spirit or soul and the body.
- "Having just come out of the Dreaming, the soul or spirit (kurunpa) of [Aboriginal] Anangu infants is still closely linked up and in communication with the Ancestors." (10)
- "The perceived relationship of [Mende] infants with the world of spirits, generates loyalties in conflict with the world of the living...infants are presumed to develop unusual powers of vision and the powers to move across different sensory domains." (11)
- "A newborn [Yukui] has been contaminated by [puerperal] blood and is also more likely to succumb to disease or birth defects during these first few weeks of life. The baby was therefore regarded as not yet belonging fully to the world but lay somewhere between the spirit domain and that of the living." (12)
Families aren't necessarily passive in the face of the infant's liminality. In the Bolivian Andes, a precise and elaborate swaddling procedure guards the infant against susto, an illness that results in the separation of body and soul (13). A caretaking style that emphasises keeping the infant in a coma-like state-always quiet and sheltered-is also often justified on the basis of insuring that the spirit doesn't flee. Of course, this policy (along with using swaddling and cradle-boards) also reduces the amount of attention that the mother must devote to the infant.
- "...a new-born [Punan Bah] child is considered little more than a mere body of blood, bones and flesh. Only gradually as the soul...takes up residence in the child, does it become human...The souls of children...can easily be scared away, and children must be handled with the greatest care at least till they are about four years old when they become more secure [for example, they are] never punished physically so as not to scare off their souls." (14)
- "General or prolonged fussiness, a refusal to eat or outright sickness-all these may be diagnosed as symptomatic of the spirit's withdrawal from the body. To secure its permanent integration with the body, the [Qiqiktamiut] family and others make every effort to encourage it to remain [including] the maintenance of a congenial atmosphere...and the creation of important ritual ties to members of the community outside the natal household." (15)
A point made in my previous post "Detachment Parenting" was that high infant mortality (among other factors) led to an emotional distancing between the newborn and its family. We have several lines of evidence from the way in which infants and children are treated in death that strongly reinforces the delayed personhood argument. First of all burial rites and mourning may be minimal or actively discouraged in the case of a child younger than five or, even as late as ten. (16) The variability is consistent with the variability in marking the age at which the child is considered a person. The attention of the family and community should be on the next child, not on the one that's died. For example, "the average duration of a birth interval is substantially shorter following an infant death than when an infant survives." (17)
- "It is not unusual for the [Ayoreo] newborn to remain unnamed for several weeks or months, particularly if the infant is sickly. The reason given is that should the child die, the loss will not be so deeply felt." (18)
- "[When a Chippewa infant died] weeping was frowned upon for the fear that the sorrow would be passed on to the next child." (19)
- "...when a [Tonga] child died before it was named, there was no mourning for no shades were involved...the old women will tell the mother to hush her wailing, saying this in only a ghost (cello)." (20)
When we turn to the archaeological record, excavators find that-save for ancient Egypt and during the city-state period in Athens-infants and children are buried apart from older children and adults. (21). And this strongly suggests that this distinction marked non/personhood.
- "In Xaltocan...burials of infants and young children less than four years of age were recovered from...under room floors and...also incorporated into house walls." (21)
- "An analysis of Etruscan child burials in Tarquinia enables one to conclude that the absence of children below the age of 5.5 years from the principal cemeteries was suggestive of a major shift at that age." (22)
- "[Mapuche] infants are not buried in the cemetery, but are buried in the old family plot or somewhere near the house, it is believed that it would be harder for the child to be turned into a demon if it is closer to the house." (23)
To sum up our findings to this point, it seems that it is only with the dramatic decline in the rate of infant/child mortality and the conversion of children from chattel to cherubs (25) that newborns were considered fully human. We reinforce this sense of humanity by giving a permanent name at birth, by making regular eye contact and using baby-talk or motherese. Our newborns start life "owning" various items of value: their own room, high chair, crib, eating utensils and entertaining toys. Elsewhere and in the past, adults acted as if the baby was on probation and that its survival was uncertain. Furthermore, the baby's lack of the distinguishing human traits-bipedal locomotion, speech, motor control and the control of elimination signaled its not-yet-personhood. The child had to earn its humanity, usually through the aid of various prophylactic procedures and by passing certain milestones or rites of passage. In the next post I will discuss another set of folk theories of infancy that emphasize the baby's potential for good and evil.
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25. Lancy, D. F. 2008. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.