ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 2, March 1995


Ochre and sexual deception

Red ochre was first used to ensure fidelity, write Chris Knight and Camilla Power

Evidence from caves and rock shelters in southern Africa suggests that the use of red ochre and haematite increased by an order of magnitude about 110,000 years ago. For some reason, these pigments suddenly became extremely attractive to the hominids of the time. Why?

Early humans no doubt began to paint their bodies with ochre as a kind of signal, to communicate a message to other humans. According to Darwinian signal-evolution theory, animals evolve conspicuous signals in order to exploit other animals. If the same was true of early humans, who was exploiting whom?

Those needing to exploit other humans would have been heavily child-burdened mothers. The only humans with spare capacity available for exploitation would have been males. We believe ochre began to be used by females in order to scramble menstrual signals, and thereby to curb male philandering, motivating males instead to invest in their partners and offspring.

Central to human evolution was the exponential increase in brain size, especially over the past quarter million years. Brain tissue was extremely expensive in evolutionary terms; and the costs of producing infants with large brains fell overwhelmingly on mothers. To cope with reproductive stress, and to make sure that each birth was worthwhile, females needed to motivate their male partners to invest in their offspring to an extent unknown among other primates.

The problem for mothers was philandering, as philanderers cannot provide dedicated parental care. There were various ways in which women evolved to stop this. One was to conceal any sign of ovulation, obliging a male to invest time in her if he was to stand much chance of getting her pregnant. Another was to synchronise fertile moments with those of neighbouring females, in order to ensure that each female had a male partner to herself.

But human females had one conspicuous reproductive signal - profuse menstrual bleeding. Against a background of ovulation concealment, menstruation is a complete give-away, signalling a female's imminent fertility. This blatant flag might tempt a would-be philanderer to desert his child-burdened partner to gain an extra impregnation.

How could females counter this kind of mate-desertion? Cosmetics - the use of ochre - may have been the answer. If there was a menstruating woman in the vicinity, why not join in with her, pretending to be as fertile as she was? Why not paint up with blood-red colours anyway, confusing menstrual signals in the same way that ovulatory signals had already become confused through evolution? Darwinian signal-evolution theory accords a central place to deceptions of just this kind in the animal world, and `sham menstruation' would be a variation on a familiar theme.

There are modern and historical parallels for this kind of behaviour in Africa, suggesting a cultural continuity stretching back more than 100,000 years. Among the hunter-gatherer Kalahari Bushmen, first-menstruation rites such as the `Eland Bull Dance' provide evidence for the kind of manipulative strategies traditionally used by women to get their menfolk to hunt for them.

The purpose of the dance is to prevent a young menstruant from being perceived as an isolable individual. Joining with her in the ritual, women liberally ochre themselves, not only to signal menstruation and shared fertility, but simultaneously to indicate `taboo'. Their basic message is: `No meat, no sex!'

Such a strategy in the African Middle Stone Age may have formed the earliest stage of human symbolic behaviour - a practice in which, in all cultures, deception plays a central role. Filled with respect for the potencies of blood, men were effectively intimidated from violating a dancer who, with her kinswomen, magically protected herself in this way. If men wanted sex, there was only one solution - they would have to go hunting and bring the meat home.

Dr Chris Knight is a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of East London; Camilla Power is a PhD student at University College London

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Our battered land

The historic countryside is still under assault, writes Simon Denison

Most people recognise the value of the historic features of the countryside - such as barrows and hillforts, hedges and other boundaries, green lanes, traditional farming systems and regionally-distinct styles in architecture. For years after the war, all these features took a battering; and despite some let-up recently, the battering is still going on.

True enough, various schemes aimed at benign land management have been introduced. Among them, payments were begun in 1986 for landowners in Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs), and grants were improved for farmers in national parks. In 1991, Countryside Stewardship Scheme grants were introduced in England, mainly for landowners outside ESAs, with a similar scheme now being piloted in Wales.

Yet according to some archaeologists, the various schemes are patchy and at times inadequately applied - little more, in fact, than a good start. `They give us a golden opportunity to conserve the archaeological resource, but the opportunity is being wasted,' said Ken Smith, Chairman of the Association of County Archaeological Officers' Countryside Committee.

Moreover, although the planning guidance document PPG16 led in 1990 to greater archaeological control over development, the major causes of archaeological loss in the countryside - agriculture and forestry - were unaffected.

Recently, the Government announced its intention to draw up a Rural White Paper, asking various special-interest groups for ideas. According to a submission from the CBA, the archaeology-related problems that need to be addressed include the following:

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Killing the unwanted child

Infanticide is as old as modern man. Simon Mays assesses the evidence

The killing of children evokes a special horror in the modern mind, yet evidence suggests the practice has always been with us - not as a rare, aberrant activity, but as a normal and persistent form of human behaviour.

Infanticide has been carried out on all continents and in all types of society, from hunter-gatherers to the industrial age. In Britain it was rife until the later 19th century; and societies that practised it recently include Imperial China and Japan, the Yanomami Indians of the Amazon, Australian Aborigines, the Inuit, and the Bushmen of Southern Africa.

Historical records suggest infanticide was widespread in Classical Greece and Rome, with the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, for instance, defending it on the grounds of the need to limit population size. Legal and church records, folklore and literature suggest that infanticide was also common in medieval Britain and the rest of Europe.

Archaeological evidence for infanticide in Britain has been less common. Yet a recent study of Romano-British child burials strongly suggests that many were victims, providing powerful support for the documentary record of the classical world.

In most societies, infanticide is carried out at or immediately after birth, providing, until recent times, one of the few reliable methods of regulating family size. Abortion, although widely practised in all periods, was both dangerous for the mother and frequently ineffective. By contrast, infanticide was effective, safe for the mother, and allowed selection of which children were to be reared.

Modern society views infanticide as a barbarous, uncaring act, yet according to anthropological studies many non-western societies that practise it exhibit a more caring and indulgent attitude towards their children than we do. One reason for the paradox is that in many societies the new-born infant is not considered a fully-fledged member of human society. The idea was certainly current in Rome. Pliny, in his `Natural History', wrote that a child does not possess a soul until the age of teething.

Thus infanticide may not be viewed in the same light as killing an older child or adult, as the infant is not considered fully human - an argument analogous to modern justifications for abortion before the foetus is `viable' at 24 weeks.

Infanticide is carried out for a variety of motives, including deformity, illegitimacy, poverty and manipulation of the sex ratio. Many societies prefer male children, and therefore those which practice infanticide usually kill more girls than boys.

The new archaeological evidence for infanticide in Roman Britain comes from the detailed analysis, carried out at the Ancient Monuments Laboratory at English Heritage, of the age at death of 164 children of late Roman date who died at or around birth. Of these, 86 came from Roman cemeteries and 78 from villas and settlements.

By measuring the long bones of a perinatal infant it is possible to determine its age at death to within about two weeks, where about 40 weeks since conception represents a full-term infant. In modern societies, perinatal deaths (such as stillbirths and natural deaths in the immediate post-natal period) have a fairly flat age distribution, with no marked peak at full term.

By contrast, the Roman perinatal infants showed a very marked peak in deaths at around full term - just the pattern expected for infanticide. The results imply that victims of infanticide were present in sufficient numbers to exert a dominant effect upon the age distribution. The pattern holds for both the cemetery and non-cemetery sites, showing that victims of infanticide were not always denied regular burial.

Infanticide may also explain another long-standing conundrum: the preponderance of male adult skeletons in Romano-British cemeteries. In the Roman cemetery at Ancaster in Lincolnshire, for instance, the male to female ratio was 1.55:1, at Cirencester 2.23:1, Colchester (Butt Road) 1.21:1, Winchester (Lankhills) 1.58:1, and York (Trentholme Drive) 4.44:1.

Altogether, the evidence from nearly 2,400 adult burials of Romano-British date reveals a sex-ratio of 1.46:1 in favour of males. In many societies girls were more often victims of infanticide than boys; so although various explanations have been offered for the data from individual sites - such as the presence of Roman legionaries or the supposed poor preservation of female skeletons - the general pattern is consistent with the hypothesis of female infanticide.

Archaeological evidence for the medieval period in Britain seems to tell a different story. Analysis of 61 infant burials from the churchyard at the deserted village of Wharram Percy - one of the few large medieval lay cemeteries for which information is available - suggests a `natural' pattern of perinatal death, consisting mainly of still-births and natural post-natal deaths, as the age distribution is fairly flat with no sharp peak at full term.

Sex ratios among medieval adult burials are often skewed in favour of males. But this, in whole or in part, reflects the fact that many large medieval assemblages are from male religious communities where the burial of brethren inflates the number of males, or from rural sites where historically-documented migrations of women to nearby towns deplete the number of women. It is thus difficult to use medieval sex ratios to study infanticide.

However, the lack of archaeological evidence from the medieval period should not necessarily be taken to suggest that infanticide was not practised. Instead, it may have been practised and its victims left unburied. Medieval historical evidence provides some support for this latter hypothesis.

The medieval church prohibited infanticide, but the fact that throughout the period the church felt the need repeatedly to censure it implies it must have gone on. A medieval manual for parish priests written by John Myrc, for instance, ordered priests to excommunicate those found guilty of the practice.

Legal and ecclesiastical records, folklore and literature suggest that in medieval times, unwanted infants were sometimes drowned in rivers, or simply abandoned and left to die. Reasons given for the widespread establishment of foundlings' homes in medieval and later times were to prevent infanticide and to save the lives of abandoned babies.

In her book, Childhood in the Middle Ages, Shulamith Shahar discusses the sources. It was a common belief, for example, that twins were a result of consecutive conceptions by the woman, and the birth of twins was taken as a sign of adultery - the suspicion being that the two infants were not of the same father. Medieval literature (for instance, Le Fresne by Marie de France) has tales of women, fearing for their good name, abandoning one twin.

There was also a widespread belief in the idea of the changeling. A mewling, sickly infant was believed to be a changeling - a child exchanged for the parents' true child by agents of the devil. Among the ways in which the devil's agents might be persuaded to take away the changeling and return the true child was for the infant to be left at the junction of three roads or the confluence of three rivers. The mother would abandon it there, returning at some later point in the hope that the true child had been restored. Needless to say, many infants so treated died from exposure or were taken by wild animals.

Infanticide continued to be a common practice until recent times in Britain. A recent survey, by WL Langer, of British newspapers in the 1860s found that dead infants were a common sight in ditches and under bridges in major cities. In 1862, one of the Middlesex coroners, Dr Lankester, was reported in the `Daily Telegraph' as complaining that the police thought no more of finding the body of an infant than they would a dead cat or dog.

`There are hundreds, nay thousands of women living in London who are guilty of having, at one time or another, destroyed their offspring without being discovered,' the coroner said.

It was only after the 1872 Infant Life Protection Act, which provided for the licensing of wet-nursing establishments, that the practice seems to have declined. In 1938, the Infanticide Act drew a clear distinction between infanticide and murder, and since then penalties have been lowered. Between 1961-65, 72 women were convicted of infanticide, but only one was sent to prison (and it was for less than six months).

Infanticide, then, has been practised in Britain for at least 2,000 years - and maybe for very much longer. Research in the early 1970s, by the American anthropologist William Divale, showed a sex ratio among 309 European Upper Palaeolithic skeletons of 1.48:1 in favour of males, interpreting this as suggestive of female infanticide. If his evidence is accepted, infanticide may be as old as modern humankind. The overwhelming impression is that, from a historical and global perspective, in not practising infanticide modern western society is the exception rather than the norm.

Dr Simon Mays is a Human Skeletal Biologist at the Ancient Monuments Laboratory of English Heritage

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