The Geography of Birth
The land I walk on, was born from the sea; rising up as the waters receded, leaving a rich, fertile place where rivers emerged from mountains. Surrounded on all three sides by the ocean, it is blessed with all forms of sea life and a clear view of the horizon where other lands also grow and shift with the changing climate.
Small bands of people from Africa, left their land hundreds of thousands of years before these stories take place. Women, in small communities, crossed the Red Sea into present day Yemen. From there, with intelligence and cooperation, followed the coastlines and rivers to populate the whole of earth. As they made their way they settled, hunted, fished, learned new technologies and developed new ways of living. They also formed families and had babies. These babies, in turn, grew up and had babies of their own. Some people stayed and created semi- permanent communities while others continued to explore new lands and make the slow ,perhaps a mile a year, migration towards what we now know as South East Asia.
The geography of birth explores the patterns and processes that helped women give birth safely in the context of their landscape and cultural experience. It examines how women adapted to change, used natural resources, shared information and cared for the young. The birth practices of most humans was tied to the landscape they lived within. Much of what we know about the migratory patterns of humans is from the study of archeology. Today we can learn through the sharing of stories.
Archeologists, who study the bones of ancient people, report that there are almost no signs of babies being buried inside a mother’s pelvis and few burials of mothers and babies together. They consider that if there had been significant problems with childbirth, there would have been more mothers and babies born together but there is little evidence of this. This along with the vast evidence of the human ability to populate the earth, helps us to believe that birth was and is inherently a normal and safe part of the human experience. In the Geography of Birth we look at outside influences; those people or events that changed birth practices and how they impacted the safety of women and babies.
The first evidence of these modern, human ancestors in SE Asia. were found in a cave in present day Laos; people who lived hunted and gathered the food of the rich peninsula.
Archaeologists believe that some people, following the coastlines went to Australia. Others pushed up to China and others remained in present day India. For most of these 200,000 years, people lived in small tribes and bands following migratory animals and seasonal crops. There is no part of human migration in which women were not giving birth. There is no historical event, war or act of genocide that was not also accompanied by women giving birth.
Like many people everywhere, the people of Southeast Asia developed a desire and ability to make permanent structures, grow crops and domesticate animals. They developed pottery and iron works and sophisticated systems of working with stone and wood. As these systems became more sophisticated, the people spent more time in permanent villages. These villages grew larger and over time turned into city-states. Meanwhile people were navigating and continuing their exploration of the coastlines and seas. People from the north, south and east came to the land to settle and trade. Some, who came to trade, never returned home. They married and stayed bringing new thought systems, technologies and beliefs.
During this time, in every place on earth, people believed in some form of earth based spirituality in which the natural world is filled with spirit. The rivers, the sea, the trees, the mountains, the flowers and the sky were all deeply connected to a force that slowly becomes known as God. Just as small city-states began to develop, so did larger, more structured religions. Hinduism would make its way to SE Asia from India. The Chinese would bring Confucianism and Nepal would give them Buddha Later the French and Spanish would bring Christianity.
What was once small bands of people roaming one landscape; free to hunt, gather and fish as they needed became a land divided into kingdoms and dynasties that often followed former tribal routes. Their formation and decline was often closely linked to the landscape and their use and misuse of natural resources. Rulers joined forces with the world’s great religions to create monarchies linked to God and heaven. Societies that had enjoyed equalitarian life styles became divided into rich and poor; ruler and slave. Empires such as the Khmer and Cham became prominent and then declined.
The Chinese pushed down from the North, as smaller tribes worked to survive and consolidate their resources. The Europeans made their way too around the globe and set out to colonize many lands including SE Asia. People who had once had power over their own futures were forced to work to create great wealth for colonial powers. What had been one peninsula of free roaming people was divided into Vietnam. Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma. Their borders would be determined by treaties made in Paris.
A version of this story can be told all over the world as people, countries, religions and ethnic groups fought for survival, wealth and power. The deaths of millions of mothers and babies was and is a consequence of greed and a desire for power. I am assured, by the women, I interviewed that childbirth was far less the cause of death than political and economic warfare waged on innocent people.
There is no way to wage a political, economic or religious war without hurting and killing mothers and babies. The woman who first walked out of Africa is our common genetic mother. Some call her our Mitochondrial Eve. I feel confident that the first band of people that left Africa, did so out of a love for their children and a wish to secure a better future for them. It is the same reason my son set out on a boat across the South China Sea and why my daughter walked through landmines to reach Thailand.
We honor all the women of the world, when we take care of one another and the amazing, bountiful land that has taken care of us for all these generations. I love listening to the stories of the oldest midwives left on earth. I want to know, how they survived war and famine and an ever-changing society. I believe they have the power to teach me the vast lessons of graciousness.
I will try to paint for you, my unknown reader, the stories of birth I have collected in a backdrop of geography, archeology, history and religion. I feel my way along the shores of my own uncharted territory; following streams within the ever-changing seasons of my life, using birth and midwives as the star in the dark night as my guide.