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Psychohistorical views on infanticide

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Psychohistorical views on infanticide (in psychohistorical jargon "early infanticidal childrearing") is a model used in the study of psychohistory to refer to the occurrence of infanticide in paleolithic,[1][2] pre-historical, or historical hunter-gatherer tribes or societies (although infanticide still occurs in the advanced nations). "Early" means early in history or in the cultural development of a society, not to the age of the child. "Infanticidal" refers to the high incidence of infants killed if compared to modern nations.[3] The model was developed by Lloyd deMause within the framework of psychohistory as part of a seven-stage sequence of childrearing modes which describe the development of human cultures in their attitude to their children.[4] The word "early" is also meant to distinguish it from late infanticidal childrearing, identified by deMause in the more established, agricultural cultures up to the ancient world.

The model

This particular model is a psychological concept that aims to understand anthropological data, especially from such societies as the Yolngu of Australia, the Gimi, Wogeo, Sambia (tribe), Bena Bena, and Bimin-Kuskusmin of Papua New Guinea, the Raum, the Ok and the Kwanga, based on observations by Geza Roheim,[5] Lia Leibowitz, Robert C. Suggs,[6] Milton Diamond, Herman Heinrich Ploss, Gilbert Herdt, Robert J. Stoller, L. L. Langness, and Fitz John Porter Poole, among others.[7] While anthropologists and psychohistorians generally do not dispute the data of their particular research, they dispute its significance (both in terms of importance and in terms of meaning) and its interpretation.[7]

Supporters attempt to explain cultural history from a psycho-developmental point of view, and argue that cultural change can be assessed as "advancement" or "regression" based on the psychological consequences of various cultural practices.[8] While most anthropologists reject this approach, and most theories of cultural evolution as ethnocentric, the psychohistorians in their turn proclaim the independence of psychohistory and summarily reject the mainstream view in scholarship, that of Boasian anthropologists.

This "infanticidal" model makes several claims: that childrearing in tribal societies included child sacrifice or high infanticide rates, incest, body mutilation, child rape and tortures, and that such activities were culturally acceptable.[9] Psychohistorians do not claim that each child was killed, only that in some societies there was (or is) a selection process that would vary from culture to culture. For example, there is a large jump in the mortality rate of Papua New Guinean children after they reach the weaning stage.[10] In the Solomon Islands some people reportedly kill their first-born child. In rural India, rural China and other societies some female babies would be exposed to death.[10] The gist of deMause's argument is that the surviving siblings of the sacrificed child may become disturbed.[3]

Some states both in the Old World and New World also practiced infanticide, including sacrifice in Mesoamerica, the Incas and in Assyrian and Canaanite religions. Phoenicians, Carthaginians and other members of early states also sacrificed infants to their gods, as described in the table of the psychopathological effects of some forms of childrearing.[3]

According to deMause, in the most primitive mode of childrearing of the above-mentioned table, mothers use their children to project parts of their dissociated self onto their children. The infanticidal clinging of the symbiotic mother prevents individuation so that innovation and more complex political organization are inhibited.[3] On a second plane, supporters maintain that the attention paid by mothers of contemporary primitive tribes to their children, such as sucking, fondling and masturbating is sexual according to an objective standard; and that this sexual attention is inordinate.[11]

The model is also based on a reported lack of empathy by infanticidal parents, such as mutual gazes between parent and child, observed by Robert B. Edgerton, Maria Lepowsky, Bruce Knauft, John W. M. Whiting and Margaret Mead among others. Such mutual gazing is widely recognized in developmental psychology as crucial for proper bonding between mother and child.


Nineteenth century British anthropology advanced a lineal, evolutionary sequence in a given culture from savagery to civilization (Stone Age, Iron Age, Bronze age, etc.). The cultures were seen as a hierarchical ladder. For example, James George Frazer posited an universal progress from magical thinking to science. Most anthropologists of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century studied primitives outside Europe and North America. John Ferguson McLennan, Lewis Henry Morgan and others argued that there was a parallel development in social institutions. Led by Leslie White, in the 1950s these evolutionist ideas gained influence in American anthropology.[12]

The German-born Franz Boas managed to shift the paradigm. His approach, later named cultural relativism, resists universal values of any kind. According to Boas' principle, which represents the mainstream school in contemporary anthropology, a set of a culture's beliefs and activities should be interpreted in terms of its own culture. This principle has been established as axiomatic in contemporary anthropology. The war of Vietnam consolidated the Boasian shift in American anthropology.[12]

Since in a certain sense the psychohistorians' model is analogous to the now discarded unilineal evolution theory, it is understandable that mainstream anthropologists have been critical of the negative value judgments, and the lineal progression, in the model currently advanced by psychohistorians as to what constitutes child abuse in either "primitive" or non-Western cultures.[13] Furthermore, lumping paleolithic societies with contemporary hunter-gatherers, as deMause and the psychohistorians do, is for anthropologists bad science. This view was rejected by anthropologists a hundred years ago. Melvin Konner wrote:

Lloyd deMause, then editor of the History of Childhood Quarterly, claimed that all past societies treated children brutally, and that all historical change in their treatment has been a fairly steady improvement toward the kind and gentle standards we now set and more or less meet. [...] Now anthropologists — and many historians as well — were slack-jawed and nearly speechless. [...] Serious students of the anthropology of childhood beginning with Margaret Mead have called attention to the pervasive love and care lavished on children in many traditional cultures.[14]

In return, psychohistorians accuse most anthropologists and ethnologists of having avoided looking more closely to the evidence and having promulgated the myth of the noble savage.[15] They maintain that what constitutes child abuse is a matter of a general psychological law and that some of the practices which mainstream anthropologists do not pay due attention, such as beatings of newborn infants, result in brain lesions and other visible neurological and psychological damage.[7]

See also


  1. Decapitated skeletons of hominid children have been found with evidence of cannibalism. See e.g., Simons, E.L. (1989). Human origins. Science (journal) 245: 1344.
  2. Maringer, Johannes (1956). The Gods of Prehistoric Man, 10-19, London: Weidenfield & Nicolson.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 deMause, Lloyd (2002). The Emotional Life of Nations, NY/London: Karnak.
  4. The Emotional Life of Nations (op. cit.), Chapter 7, Part 2, "Childhood and Cultural Evolution".
  5. Roheim, Geza (1950). Psychoanalysts and Anthropology, NY: International Universities Press.
  6. Suggs, Robert C. (1966). Marquesan Sexual Behavior, NY: Hartcourt, Brace & World.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 deMause, Lloyd (1988). On Writing Childhood History. The Journal of Psychohistory 16 (2) Fall. [1]
  8. deMause, Lloyd (1992). The evolution of childrearing modes. Empathic Parenting 15, issues 1 & 2.
  9. Rascovsky, A. (1995). Filicide: The Murder, Humiliation, Mutilation, Denigration and Abandonment of Children by Parents, 107, NJ: Aronson.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Milner, Larry S. (2000). Hardness of Heart / Hardness of Life, University Press of America.
  11. deMause, Lloyd (1991). The universality of incest. The Journal of psychohistory 19, No. 2.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Anthropology, Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite.
  13. Paul, Robert A. (1982). Review of Lloyd deMause's Foundations of Psychohistory. Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology 5: 469.
  14. Konner, Melvin (1991). Childhood, 193, Boston: Little Brown & Co..
  15. Godwin, Robert (2004). One Cosmos under God, 166-174, Omega Books.

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