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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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skull

Living and Dying in America

 

Difficult Births
 
Was This Baby Swaddled to Death?
 
Colonial Medicine
 
Pottery,
Pewter, & Poison

 
Lives Cut Short
 
Chapel Burials
 
Settling In


Colonial Chesapeake survival rested in large part on the health of women.

Colonial re-enactor
Colonial re-enactor. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

Throughout the 17th century, colonists could not increase their numbers through the birth rate. Not only was infant mortality high, but there was also a chronic shortage of women, who faced the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, not to mention the risks of settling in a new land.

A married woman in the colonies could expect to be pregnant every two years until her death or menopause. Women died so often during childbirth during the 17th century that the cause of death was listed in English broadsheets simply as "childbirth." Some women prolonged breast-feeding in hopes of postponing ovulation and another pregnancy.

Bone Markers of Childbirth

Left female hip bone (innominate) with paturition pit.
Left female hip bone (innominate) with paturition pit. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

Pregnancy does not modify a woman's bones, with one exception. During childbirth, the pubic bones separate to allow an infant to pass through the birth canal. The ligaments connecting the pubic bones must stretch; they can tear and cause bleeding where they attach to bone. Later, bone remodeling at these sites can leave small circular or linear grooves on the inside surface of the pubic bones. These parturition pits show that a female has given birth vaginally.

Field photo, close-up of the pelvic bones with a late-term fetus
Female, age 26 to 32, with an unborn, late-term fetus in utero. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

 

 

Buried with Her Unborn Child

Bone does not usually show conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth — but the skeleton of this young immigrant held the remains of a late-term fetus. The mother's pelvic bones show no abnormalities that would have prevented a normal birth. Nevertheless, it is quite likely that her death was related to pregnancy or complications during childbirth.

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