A review: Dietary restrictions on hunter-gatherer women and the implications for fertility and infant mortality

Katherine A. Spielmann

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


The relatively low reproductive rates of huntergatherer populations have been attributed to high natural mortality, low fertility, and cultural practices such as infanticide and sexual abstention. While we currently lack the data necessary to determine the relative effects of each of these factors on reproduction in any huntergatherer population, an analysis of the relations between cultural practices and reproduction at a more general level can set the stage for further research in huntergatherer societies. This paper reviews and discusses the current literature on specific links between female nutritional health, fertility, and infant mortality. It begins with a consideration of food taboos, one potential source of huntergatherer female nutritional stress. In particular, it is argued that the timing of food taboos on females in many huntergatherer societies often coincides with critical periods in women's reproductive careers. Next, the paper explores the interrelationships between female nutritional health and fertility and infant mortality, using data from modern huntergatherer and agricultural populations. Finally, because data adequate to test specific relationships between patterns of food restrictions and reproduction are not yet available, the paper concludes with a brief discussion of the data necessary for testing these relationships in huntergatherer populations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)321-345
Number of pages25
JournalHuman Ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1989


  • fertility
  • food taboos
  • hunter-gatherers
  • infant mortality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Anthropology
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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