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Gerburtsverhalten und reproduktive Strategien der Eipo, Ergebnisse humanethologischer und ethnomediziner Untersuchungen im zentralen Bergland von Irian Jaya (West-Neuguinea), Indonesia.

This specialist volume forms part of an impressive series of works resulting from an interdisciplinary program of research conducted during the 1970s by a number of scholars supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. The approach in this program, carried out among the Eipo-Mek people of the highlands of Irian Jaya, has been comprehensive, involving separate but at least partially inter-related projects by ethnologists, experts on material culture, psychologists, linguists, biologists, agronomists, botanists, and human ethologists. Schievenhovel, who specializes in ethnomedicine and particularly in the cross-cultural study of birthing practices, is a member of Professor Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt's team of workers in human ethology, who for many years have documented interaction patterns in selected cultures around the world. The present study is accordingly couched in terms of ethological hypotheses as well as the more recent ones of sociobiology. Its strength lies in its documentation and attention to detail, a point which is true of all the volumes in its series. More controversial perhaps are some of the theoretical explanations which are given of the data revealed, and the book's copious photographic documentation of what is, in the culture concerned, a fairly private arena of experience.

This latter point aside, the volume is a masterly synthesis of ethnographic information and ethnomedical comments. The author provides early on an overview of the health status of populations in the New Guinea highlands (both Irian Jaya and Papua New Guinea); and a further survey of the cross-cultural literature on birthing customs. He then proceeds to his fieldwork data, giving a copious account of the birthing protocols of seven women at different stages in the life cycle. The description shows clearly how birthing practices are embedded in the wider culture, tied to the female sphere, and are dependent on care-giving by traditional birth attendants. Schiefenhovel suggests that from the Eipo practices a critique of western medicalized practices can be developed, and proposals made for the improvement and humanizing of the birth process. The book is outstanding in respect of these anthropological and humanistic concerns.

In theoretical terms the author builds his ideas from the functionalist models of biology. Noting the incidence of female infanticide carried out by mothers themselves, he argues that this custom is a part of auto-regulative mechanisms which caused the Eipo to have a zero population growth over time and thus enabled them to stay within the carrying capacity of their territory. Female infanticide is placed alongside delayed sexual maturity, male fears of female sexual fluids, and a post-partum taboo on intercourse, all seen as means of limiting population growth. Female infanticide is chosen for micro-examination within the total cybernetic process hypothesized, and 23 cases were documented over a six-year period. Among the people as a whole, such infanticide was not a taboo topic and women who committed the act of killing their newly-born daughters were not censured but seen as conforming to a 'cultural preference' for sons. This preference Schiefenhovel takes as a proximate cause, behind which population control under selection pressure stands as a final cause.

In terms of actual evidence for this theory, there is some indication that infanticide did occur more often in times of famine. But one would have liked to know more, if possible, about the actual views and expressed feelings of the women in question. Elsewhere in the New Guinea highlands women sometimes killed new-born children or allowed them to die as a sign of their destructive anger against their husbands. Such anger occurred most notably in contexts of polygyny and arose when mothers giving birth felt slighted or neglected by their husbands. Perhaps ideas of this sort might also apply to at least some of the Eipo cases. Overall, the interpretation by final cause and the reliance on population control as the key concept must both remain speculative. The superbly detailed ethnographic data, gathered in synchronic vein, simply cannot in themselves definitively point to the long-term diachronic processes which the author envisages.

Despite these remarks this is a very worthy and fundamental piece of research-reporting and should be studied by all anthropologists interested in birth customs, ethnomedicine, and population theory, as well as by specialists on New Guinea.

ANDREW STRATHERN University of Pittsburgh
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Author:Strathern, Andrew
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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