Pleistocene epoch

With six billion people on the planet, it is easy to forget that we have not always been so numerous. Every person on earth descends from a population living in the world roughly 2,000,000 years ago that probably did not number more than ten thousand breeding adults.

The Pleistocene epoch, between 1.6 million and 10,000 years ago, was also a time when it was very risky to be born. We are just beginning to understand the full range of hazards and their implications for the attributes babies possess. Almost all women who reached adulthood became pregnant and bore young. Yet the majority died without a single surviving offspring because so many of those born never grew up.

Consider the life history of a hunter-gatherer woman named Nisa. This plucky woman belonged to the !Kung San, a nomadic foraging people who continued to traverse the Kalahari Desert long into the twentieth century, confronting challenges similar to those faced by Pleistocene hunters and gatherers for thousands of years before the invention of agriculture and the domestication of animals for food.

When interviewed for her biography in the early 1970s, Nisa had suffered two miscarriages and borne three daughters and a son — close to the average family size (3.5 children) for a !Kung woman. Two of Nisa’s children survived into adolescence, but both died before adulthood. Thirty-six percent of !Kung women would, like Nisa, die without a single surviving offspring.

Since all the !Kung women interviewed were postmenopausal at the time, a few more might lose their last child before they themselves died. If we take into account how many women died before they even had a chance to breed, the true proportion of those dying childless is probably higher. I estimate that one-half or more of all !Kung women born died childlessly. The death of a child is the most awful occurrence parents can imagine. Fortunately for most of those reading, childhood death is a rarity. Unlike Nisa, they live in privileged regions of the globe, at least for the time being, and enjoy an unprecedented standard of living. Nine hundred and ninety-four of every thousand babies born in the United States survive infancy. Yet even though the odds of keeping infants alive have improved astronomically, the chances that a woman in a postindustrial society will die without descendants have not changed that much.

In the Sacramento Valley of California, 40 percent of all grown women who died between 1890 and 1984 left no surviving offspring. But the reasons so many women in the Kalahari and California populations died childlessly are quite different. In twentieth-century California, many of the women never married. Others could not, or consciously decided not to, have children, or else decided to give birth to only a few. Almost all infants born survived, so that the average number of children per woman (1.6) was close to the number actually born.

The circumstances surrounding motherhood have never been more different. Yet, as I will show in this book, from contemporary countries in which women live in a state of ecological release, no longer constrained by having to forage enough food each day to stay alive and with a broad range of reproductive options, to other parts of the world where they are less fortunate, women are constantly making trade-offs between subsistence and reproduction that are similar in outline.


The divine scriptures are God’s beacons to the world. Surely God offered His trust to the heavens and the earth, and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man undertook it.
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