The cost of fertility: maternal mortality and morbidity during ancient demographic transitions

Presented by ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences

Bioarchaeological accounts of the relationship between fertility, maternal and infant mortality have been limited by the inability to measure the prevalence of maternal deaths and the number of infants born, and thus the proportion of infants that did not survive their early years. Even our understanding of fertility, for which proxy measures have existed for some time, has been reductive; based on sparing ethnographic accounts and often on assumptions of poorly or entirely uncontrolled conceptions and births. This seminar reports on the complex, non-linear relationship between fertility and maternal mortality in ancient Southeast Asia.

High fertility may be seen as a response to high infant mortality and may cause increased maternal mortality through more pregnancies per woman (exposure), greater risk of death with high order pregnancies, reduced interbirth interval, and pregnancies in higher risk age categories (very young or geriatric pregnancies). Conversely, reduced maternal mortality may cause high fertility due to the decreased cost of childbirth and extended childbearing period through increased life expectancy. This research explores the potential implications of fluctuating fertility for maternal morbidity and mortality in the context of ancient populations.

Dr Clare McFadden has a PhD in Biological Anthropology (2019) from the Australian National University. She is an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). In 2019 she was appointed Lecturer in Biological Anthropology in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at The Australian National University.

Her research has focussed on refining and expanding palaeodemographic tools, with an emphasis on application to bioarchaeological samples from Southeast Asia and the Pacific region. The palaeodemographic measures which she has developed and finessed use skeletally-derived age-at-death data to estimate fertility, the rate of natural population increase, maternal mortality, and elderly age-at-death. The application of these tools has reinforced overarching regional trends in population responses to major sociocultural and technological events.