Female Infanticide: Northern Exposure

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, November 26, 1994 | Go to article overview

Female Infanticide: Northern Exposure


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Western explorers and anthropologists who trekked to the harsh lands of northern Alaska and Canada early in this century made a disturbing observation: Boys greatly outnumbered girls in the various Eskimo communities known as Inuit, apparently reflecting the widespread practice of killing girls at birth or shortly thereafter.

Researchers still dispute the reasons for this, and a growing number suspect that demographic blunders created a false impression of female infanticide. But the first study to reconstruct Inuit age and sex characteristics from census data gathered between 1880 and 1930 indicates that, on average, the Inuit intentionally killed one out of five baby girls.

Reliance on female infanticide varied with the scarcity of game and the need for risk-taking male hunters, who could provide for their parents and siblings as well as their wives and children, propose two anthropologists at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Although raising an Inuit boy demanded more time and resources from parents than raising a girl, analysis of the census data suggests that -- in groups that depended almost solely on hunting for survival -- boys eventually repaid parents and other close relatives by sharing food and helping them catch game, contends Eric Alden Smith, who conducted the study with S. Abigail Smith.

Systematic female infanticide disappeared in Inuit groups as European industry reduced reliance on hunting in Arctic areas, the researchers add.

Their report, published in the December CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY, includes "model life tables" calculated from census data for 2,718 individuals in 10 historic Inuit populations. Key data in these tables consist of estimates of child and adult sex ratios, adult mortality, a measure of parental time and effort necessary to raise boys relative to girls, and death rates for baby girls. …

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