The 89th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2020)

Fertility Magic and Childbirth During a Malaria Epidemic: An examination of sixty burials from a Roman infant cemetery


1Anthropology, The University of Arizona, 2Classics, Stanford University

April 17, 2020 , Diamond 10 Add to calendar

While studies of childhood stress and infant mortality are prevalent in bioarchaeology, there are far fewer analyses of the corresponding experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and child loss by ancient women. This poster presents an examination of sixty burials from the Roman Necropoli dei Bambini of fetuses and infants, aged six gestational months to three years old, who perished during an epidemic of Plasmodium falciparum malaria ca. 450 A.D. Results of this analysis not only show bony pathology consistent with malarial infection, but also birth-related trauma such as clavicle fracture resulting from shoulder dystocia and cervical injury from possible breech presentation. The localization of the trauma, along with the state of healing of the injuries, strongly suggest these were midwife-assisted deliveries, and that mother and infant received a degree of postnatal care. Previous research on faunal and botanical remains from the burials indicated attempts at magico-medical cures for the malarial infection. These new findings specifically suggest the presence of women with knowledge of medicine and midwifery in this rural community and contain added significance in the context of an epidemic that would have disproportionally affected pregnant women, babies, and young children. This has also offered new interpretations of ritual artifacts recovered from the burials as forms of fertility magic. Our analysis contradicts male-centric historical accounts of childbirth and mortality in the Roman world and suggests a high degree of female agency during a public health crisis that changed the course of history.

Slides/Poster (pdf)