The 84th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2015)

Missing, presumed dead: Deconstructing ‘high’ infant mortality with new data sets from historic cemetery populations


Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester

March 26, 2015 , Gateway Ballroom 4 Add to calendar

It is a common assumption in physical anthropology that infant mortality must have been much higher in historic human populations than it is today; perhaps reaching 30-50% or more of total mortality. This hypothesis has not been tested, largely because of the lack of reliable demographic data before the Industrial Revolution. By turning to data sources which have never been compared before, it is possible to shed light on this complex problem as well as the most fundamental facets of historic lifeways. Over two hundred cemetery excavation reports from North America and the UK were appraised, of which seventy-two had suitable sample sizes (>10) and demographic data to study ratios of adults (>18 years), children (2-18 years), and infants (<2 years). Eighteen North American cemeteries and all twenty-three British cemeteries employed sufficiently precise age estimation methods to research age-specific mortality in depth and to assess its similarity to standard attritional mortality as compared to Model West life tables. On average, infant and child mortality was lower in English cemeteries than in North American cemeteries (14% and 16%; 25% and 23% respectively). No relationship between mortality and climate could be found. There was a weak correlation between robust sample size and higher infant/child mortality, however a range of plausible mortalities existed within most smaller cemeteries. This suggests that population growth and thorough excavation will partially account for some higher early life mortality patterns, while infant mortality from an excavated assemblage in general may range from ~15-35%.

Funding provided by the University of Manchester Faculty of Life Science.