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Ancient Agriculture’s Role in Maternal and Infant Mortality

The skull of a young woman from Quiani-7 shows abnormal bone formation (arrowed) that may be associated with scurvy-related haemorrhage of the infraorbital artery. Credit: A. Snoddy

The skull of a young woman from Quiani-7 shows abnormal bone formation (arrowed) that may be associated with scurvy-related haemorrhage of the infraorbital artery. Credit: A. Snoddy

By Anne Marie Snoddy & Siân Halcrow

Ancient human remains have revealed evidence that the adoption of agriculture led to malnutrition in a mother, her foetus and other infants.

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The foundation of modern society is rooted in agricultural dependency, a development that provided the necessary resources for population expansion. However, research by biological anthropologists who study ancient human remains has shown that the development of agriculture resulted in an increase in nutritional stress, food shortages and disease in many parts of the world.

New findings from the Atacama Desert in northern Chile has found that the adoption of agriculture is associated with an increase in premature death and vitamin deficiencies passed on from the mother to her infant. This work also provides the first direct evidence of the maternal–foetal transmission of a nutritional deficiency in ancient human remains.

The Atacama Desert is well-known for the earliest evidence in the world for purposeful mummification of the dead, pre-dating the ancient Egyptian mummies by two millennia. It’s thought that these intricately prepared and decorated funerary rituals, largely focused on infants and children, were a social response to the high rate of foetal, infant and maternal death in the region’s Chinchorro populations. Although there has been an archaeological focus on the Chinchorro and their associated mummy burials, recent research has highlighted periods of increasing infant mortality during the period when they transitioned from hunter-gatherer to...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.