Europe: Medieval and Early Modern Infant Carriers

What kind of infant carriers were used in Europe in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern area? Europe has a variety of geographies and climates: from the sunny warmth of the Mediterranean to the deserts of Spain, the Alpine Glaciers, the ancient forests of Germany, the tundra in Finland, to the wetlands of eastern England. Different environments produce different carriers and Europe is no exception. In the Nordic countries, we find extremely complex carriers, called Komse, which are cradleboards that would not look out of place in many North American First Nations cultures. Elsewhere, there are extremely simple carriers: fabric tied at the shoulder to form a sling.  The most striking differences in how infants were carried in the Middle Ages versus today stems from the practice of swaddling. Continue reading

Big Babies

Humans, like all primates, are physiologically ridersRiders carry their young because their breast milk composition is not suited to parking infants for long periods (Ross). Nonhuman primates can carry their babies without the aid of a tool because their infants are small and able to cling to their mothers from birth. Humans find carrying infants more difficult for three reasons: the relative size of our infants,  non-grasping feet, and lack of adult body hair. In this post, we’re going to focus on why human babies are so large and helpless compared to other primates and when in our evolution the trend for large infants began.

Our evolutionary cousins, non-human primates in the Family Hominidae, have smaller, more precocious babies than humans. Adult gorillas, for example, are significantly larger than adult humans, yenewborn and adult weightst their newborns are about half the size of our newborns. Chimpanzees, which are our closest extant evolutionary relative and have a similar adult body weight to adult humans, have newborns that are around 3% of adult size, while humans have newborns that are around 6% of adult size (DeSilva).

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Beng Babies of the Côte d’Ivoire

In 2004, Alma Gottlieb published a unique ethnography on the babies of the Beng people in Côte d’Ivoireivory coast. The majority of ethnographies focus on the culture of adults or verbal children. Babies, if considered at all, are described in the context of their relationships to adults and older children. Gottlieb’s work focus on infants as the subject in The Afterlife is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa. I hope that her work inspires more ethnographic research into the cultures of infancy around the world. For me at least, the subject is endlessly fascinating.  I recommend the book to everyone interested in anthropology, parenting, or infants.

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To Ride Along

All primates are riders, meaning that primate infants ride on the body, usually of their mother, as she goes about her day. However, riding is a strategy that evolved long before primates and is seen in other mammals. Parking, on the other hand, is considered the ancestral state. Parkers, like foxes, for example, leave their young in a nest or burrow while they forage or hunt.  Continue reading

Indonesia

In Indonesia, the Luwu people of South Sulawesi wrap the newborn and the placenta (known in the west as a lotus birth) together in a sarrong. The placenta is referred to as the newborn’s “older sibling”. When the placenta is ready to separate from the infant, the father carries the older sibling out of the house, in a sling (just like a baby) and buries it near a tree.

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In East Nusa, Tenggara Province, sarrongs are also used as baby carriers, in East Flores they are referred to as wėngko molė , or “making the blanket”– wėngko refers to the placenta. Infant carriers are considered an artificial womb, a substitute placenta for the baby.

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Taira, Okinawa

In 1966, Thomas and Hatsumi Maretzki wrote an ethnography of the Okinawan village of Taira, published as part of a series called Six Cultures: Studies of Child Rearing, which this article is a summary focusing on his observations of infant carrying.

okinawaBeginning one month after birth, a baby is kept in constant contact with its caregiver’s body and this continues until the child is around two years old, or whenever the mother becomes pregnant again.

“A child is strapped onto someone’s back from the time he wakes up in the morning to the time he is put to bed at night.”(Maretzki, 107).

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