Researchers crack mystery of past maternal mortality rates

February 15, 2019, Australian National University
Lead researcher Clare McFadden, a PhD Scholar with the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology. Credit: Australian National University

Researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) have developed the first method for determining maternal mortality rates in prehistoric populations based on archaeological records.

Until now there has been no way to measure how many died in pregnancy or shortly after childbirth prior to modern record keeping.

Lead researcher Clare McFadden, a Ph.D. Scholar with the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology said she hopes this new method will lead to a renewed research focus on women throughout prehistory.

"What is really exciting is that this method will open up the door to studies we never thought were possible," Ms McFadden said.

"It helps to shift the focus of archaeology more towards women.

"We have a lot of work on the male experience, including warfare, but now we can look at some of the female experiences, like what it was like to be a and new mother throughout prehistory."

The restriction for this field of study has always been a lack of any way to determine whether someone died from complications of childbirth based on skeletal remains.

To get around this problem, the researchers' looked at the population age-at-death distribution and maternal mortality rates in 46 modern populations.

"We looked at how many women were dying compared to men during the child-bearing years, to see if the difference lined up with the maternal mortality rate for that population," she said.

"We found there was a really strong correlation, which gave us confidence that it was a good predictor of maternal mortality rates that could be applied to other populations."

Ms McFadden said the new method had the potential to open up a range of new research topics that have never been possible until now.

"The first thing that we are doing is looking at how the health of women contributes to their risk of dying during childbirth," she said.

"So if it's a healthy population do we see less deaths?

"If a population has unexpectedly low maternal rates, then we have to ask why. Did people have better skills at delivering babies? Or better care for pregnant women?"

The study from which the new research was developed is being published in a paper in the journal Current Anthropology.

Explore further: Maternal mortality rates are on the rise, but more accurate estimates are needed

More information: Clare McFadden et al. The Paleodemographic Measure of Maternal Mortality and a Multifaceted Approach to Maternal Health, Current Anthropology (2019). DOI: 10.1086/701476

Related Stories

Research shows SE Asian population boom 4,000 years ago

September 19, 2018

Researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) have uncovered a previously unconfirmed population boom across South East Asia that occurred 4,000 years ago, thanks to a new method for measuring prehistoric population ...

For skeleton sex it's all in the hips

September 9, 2015

Archaeologists at The Australian National University (ANU) have weighed into a long-running controversy surrounding one of the best methods of determining the sex of human skeletal remains.

EU hands Liberia 42 mn euros to cut maternal mortality

November 8, 2012

The European Commission on Thursday pledged 42 million euros to Liberia's president and Nobel peace laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to help halve one of the world's highest maternal mortality rates.

Recommended for you

A decade on, smartphone-like software finally heads to space

March 20, 2019

Once a traditional satellite is launched into space, its physical hardware and computer software stay mostly immutable for the rest of its existence as it orbits the Earth, even as the technology it serves on the ground continues ...

Tiny 'water bears' can teach us about survival

March 20, 2019

Earth's ultimate survivors can weather extreme heat, cold, radiation and even the vacuum of space. Now the U.S. military hopes these tiny critters called tardigrades can teach us about true toughness.

Researchers find hidden proteins in bacteria

March 20, 2019

Scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago have developed a way to identify the beginning of every gene—known as a translation start site or a start codon—in bacterial cell DNA with a single experiment and, through ...

Turn off a light, save a life, says new study

March 20, 2019

We all know that turning off lights and buying energy-efficient appliances affects our financial bottom line. Now, according to a new study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, we know that saving energy also saves ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.