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Mankind. 1981 Jun;13(1):37-55.

The determinants of fertility among Australian Aborigines.



This paper concerns the determinants of fertility of precontact Australian Aborigine women. Emphasis is placed on social organization as well as the physical environment and considerations of adaptation. The key to understanding the fertility of Australian Aborigines is the structural tension evident in male-female relations. Ethnographic data on hunter-gatherers fertility indicate a low fertility rate, e.g. 4.7-5.2 live births/woman for the Kung. Traditional Aboriginal physiological fertility was also low if infant mortality is separated from infertility. Past studies of population and transition theory in pre-contact situations have attributed increase in population to reduction in mortality. This paper suggests that there must have been an increase in the birth rate. Factors affecting ovulation, conception, and parturition are examined for traditional Aboriginal populations. Ovulation is affected by nutrition, lactation, and introcision. Lack of body fat in women causes anovulation due to insufficent energy reserves. Increased fertility appears to be a greatly reduced energy expenditure and an increased carbohydrate intake leading to a build up of body weight. Pre-contact Aboriginal fertility was low because of a low caloric intake and a high energy expenditure. Prolonged lactation does not seem to cause birth spacing. The actual length of time after parturition appears to be an independent cause of reduced prolactin, and of reestablishment of ovulation. Stress and anxiety are factors which could reduce fertility by causing anovulation in women and/or reduced sperm counts in men. Contraception is affected by coital frequency and male fertility. Aboriginal coital frequency may have been affected by the lack of privacy and competition of a co-wife. Gestation is affected by spontaneous abortion, sterility, and foetal wastage. Harsh conditions of traditional Aborigines may have affected their ability to conceive. Voluntary controls on fertility for Aborigines include rituals, avoidance of coitus, taking medicines, abortion, and infanticide. Low fertility of precontact aborigines is accounted for by diet and energy expenditure, with limited coital frequency and foetal wastage as probable contributing factors. Fallopian tube blockage could account for the high rate of infertility of women. Social organization, values, and beliefs are important to take into account.

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