Nisa: Infanticide In The !Kung Hunter-Gatherers of Southern Africa

This article is related to my article about the After-Birth Abortion controversy. The discussion of disability is appended to the end, but I think these passages from Nisa inform that discussion, so I’ve put them first.

Nisa, by Marjorie Shostak, (c) 1981

I’m sure there is an extensive literature on infanticide, historical, anthropological, psychological, etc., but I haven’t read any of it. But I think this story is fascinating.

This is the story as told by Nisa, a !Kung woman, to Shostak, an American ethnographer. Nisa is recounting something she recalls from when she was around 3:

After he [her brother] was born, he lay there, crying. I greeted him, “Ho, ho, my baby brother! Ho, ho, I have a little brother! Some day we’ll play together.” But my mother said, “What do you think this thing is? Why are you talking to it like that? Now, get up and go back to the village and bring me my digging stick.” I said, “What are you going to dig?” She said, “A hole. I’m going to dig a hole so I can bury the baby. Then you, Nisa, will be able to nurse again.” I refused. “My baby brother? My little brother? Mommy, he’s my brother! Pick him up and carry him back to the village. I don’t want to nurse!” Then I said, “I’ll tell daddy when he comes home!” She said, “You won’t tell him. Now, run back and bring me my digging stick. I’ll bury him so you can nurse again. You’re much too thin.” I didn’t want to go and started to cry. I sat there, my tears falling, crying and crying. But she told me to go, saying she wanted my bones to be strong. So, I left and went back to the village, crying as I walked.

I was still crying when I arrived. I went to the hut and got her digging stick. My mother’s younger sister had just arrived home from the nut groves. When she saw me, she said, “Nisa, what’s wrong? Where’s your mother?”

Nisa then tells her aunt the story.

My mother’s sister said, “Oooo…people! This Chuko [Nisa’s mother], she’s certainly a bad one to be talking like that. And she’s out there alone with the baby! No matter what it is—a boy or girl—she should keep it.”

They both go back to her mother and her younger brother, Kumsa.

Perhaps [my mother] had already changed her mind, because when we got there, she said, “Nisa, because you were crying like that, I’ll keep the baby and carry him back with me.” My aunt went over to Kumsa lying beside my mother and said, “Chuko, you can see what a big boy you gave birth to, yet you wanted Nisa to bring back your digging stick? You wanted to bury this great big baby? Your own father worked to feed you and keep you alive. This child’s father would surely have killed you if you had buried his little boy. You must have no sense, wanting to kill such a nice big baby.”

My aunt cut the umbilical cord, wiped him off, put him into her kaross, and carried him back to the village. My mother soon got up and followed, shamed by her sister’s talk. Finally, she said, “Can’t you understand? Nisa is still a little child, My heart’s not happy that she hasn’t any milk to drink. Her body is weak. I want her bones to grow strong.” But my aunt said, “When Gau [Nisa’s father] hears about this, he’ll beat you. A grown woman with one child following after another so nicely, doesn’t behave like this.” When we arrived back in the village, my mother took the baby and lay down.

People from the village began coming around to look at Kumsa.

The women all said, “Ooooh…this woman has no sense! She gave birth to such a big baby, yet she was going to kill it!” My mother said, “I wanted his older sister to nurse, that’s why I would have done it, and if I had been alone, I would have! I did the wrong thing by not taking my digging stick with me, but others did the wrong thing by taking him away from me. That’s why I’m here with him at all.” The women did not agree. They told my aunt, “You did very well. You were right to take the baby from Chuko and save him for his father. Wouldn’t Chuko have had to answer to him if she had killed his baby?”

Nisa’s father comes home and hears the story.

My father said, “Chuko, why did you want to kill my son? If you had, I would have killed you. I would have struck you with my spear and killed you. Do you think I wouldn’t do that? I surely would. What was making you feel so much pain that you would have killed such a large baby? You’ll keep both children, now. Nisa will continue to grow up eating regular food. (pp. 46-51)

Shostak shares her uncertainty about the believability of Nisa’s story:

I didn’t know what to make of it. It seemed too strange to be a lie. As one of her earliest “memories”, maybe it was a fantasy she had created when her brother was born, to help her deal with the anger and jealousy she felt toward him. Or perhaps Nisa’s mother, never seriously entertaining the idea, actually suggested killing the baby, knowing that Nisa would say no. She might have hoped to make Nisa feel protective toward her brother. Or, more likely, the threat might have been a guilt-inducing weapon to make Nisa stop complaining about weaning. Other explanations also came to mind. What was clear, however, was that Nisa believed the story as she told it. (p. 29)

In another section, Shostak wonders how !Kung women are able to maintain a roughy four year interval between children In providing an answer, she has this to say about infanticide in the culture:

Infanticide has also [in addition to abortion] been suggested as an explanation. Bantu law now prohibits this practice, but even in traditional times it probably occurred only rarely—in cases of congenital deformity, of too short birth spacing, or of twins, regardless of gender. The length of the birth interval could be a life-or-death issue: if a woman had another baby too soon, either the baby or her older child—already the object of great affection—would probably die. Nursing a child requires a large daily intake of calories by the mother. Although the !Kung diet is adequate for this, it would be debilitating or even impossible for a woman to produce enough milk for two children. With no other sources of milk available, the older child would have to be weaned onto bush foods, which are rough and difficult to digest. To survive on such foods a child would have to be older than two years—preferably substantially older. (Today cows’ milk is available for toddlers, so this problem has largely been eliminated.) (p. 60)

After Kumsa, Nisa’s mother became pregnant again with a girl, Kxamshe. At first, while she was still pregnant, her mother told everyone that she wanted to kill her, so that Kumsa could nurse. Everyone was predictably outraged and tried to talk her out of it. Nisa went with her when she gave birth to Kxamshe:

After the baby was born, I said, “Daddy said that if you kill this baby, he’ll take me and Kumsa and Dau and leave you.” But she said, “Uhn, uhn…I don’t want to kill her. This little girl is too beautiful. See how lovely and fair her skin is?” [Shostak offers the explanation that “The !Kung are much ligher in color than the neighboring Bantu peoples”] (p. 70)

On another occasion, a woman in the village dies a few hours after giving birth to a small and sickly child. The woman’s husband says, “Now that this has happened, I’ll take the child, lay it down beside my wife and kill it.” But people in the village convince him to instead have an unmarried woman he had had as a lover take care of the child, and they eventually marry. (p. 168)

So what does all this say about the !Kung attitude toward infanticide? My reading is that it was clearly more accepted in their culture than in the mainstream cultures of any developed countries today. This seems largely to have been of necessity. If, after birth, the newborn can cause the death of an already living sibling, then the lives of the two siblings must be prioritized, horrifying as that may be, and as the living sibling has already had a sizable investment of resources poured into it by the parents, its life is going to be given higher priority. (This harmonizes with one of the supporting claims in the original article on after-birth abortion: “the interests of actual people over-ride the interest of merely potential people to become actual ones.” I also give more detail about this here.)

Fortunately, in modern developed countries we are never forced to make this difficult decision. However, this case does echo the decision we are still forced to make sometimes: when a fetus is imperiling the life of the mother, should the fetus be aborted?

Abundance solved the first problem, perhaps technology will one day solve the other?  If it advances to the point where a fetus can be brought to term outside of the mother and thereby spare them both, then perhaps one day we will look back at the practice of aborting fetuses simply because they have endangered the life of the mother as barbaric. So this is an excellent example of how the technology and resources available to a culture shape its attitudes toward who can be killed and when.

Going back to the !Kung, it is also clear that even though infanticide was an option for them, it was never a choice made without anguish. This also echoes the way abortion is treated in modern cultures. And this follows in line with our instincts toward loving and protecting newborn babies, discussed in the other post.

In fact, I think it’s possible that though we do have an evolutionary adaptation to love and protect newborn infants, evolution has made that instinct less strong with newborn babies than it is with babies a few days or weeks old. This adaptation would serve survival in the more difficult circumstances such as those the !Kung live in. And it would be an explanation for their cultural artifact of not considering a newborn a person until it has been brought back to the village for everyone to see (p. 60 of Nisa). Before then, it can be buried and killed.


In regard to the question of disability, as brought up by the commenter Si (April 24, 2012) on the original post, I think for modern people it is important to point out that instinct need only be applied in the positive case. Many people have an instinctive revulsion towards babies born with disabilities and may desire or even be encouraged to kill those newborns or let them die, even for a matter as simple as a cleft palate. But while I believe that having an instinct not to kill newborn babies is enough to socially or legally proscribe the killing of newborn babies, and to override any logical arguments such as the after-birth abortion one, having an instinct to kill a being isn’t necessarily reason enough to allow the killing of that being. Since the base position is not to kill something (i.e., reasons must be given for killing something, but no reasons need be given for not killing something), then whether and when to allow a newborn with severe disabilities to die or be killed can be taken up in an an entirely different set of arguments and considerations.

And I do believe that that discussion needs to be had, that it is not as simple as just protecting the life of all newborns equally. I think there are cases where parents should be allowed to let their newborn die, or even kill him or her. Cases of extreme disability, for which it can be predicted that care will occupy all of the time and effort of the parents for the rest of the child’s life. I read a news story recently about parents who were suing a hospital that had taken heroic efforts to save the life of their severely disabled newborn a few years before, and now the parents were occupied completely with caring for this child who had such a list of special needs and requirements that the parents were unable to do anything else with their lives. And the child was never going to become independent. I think the parent’s complaint is legitimate, in the same way that !Kung parents’ difficult decision about infanticide was legitimate. As the culture and technology change, so do the criteria for infanticide. But like any heap paradox we are never left with any defined lines of when it is and isn’t acceptable to let a disabled newborn die. How severe must the disability be? If you answer that there is never a time when letting a newborn die would be acceptable, I can respect that answer, but I disagree.

Published in: on June 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,