Thursday, July 30, 2009

Library Unit Four: Fun With Menstruation

“A Women's Curse?”
Meredith F. Small
The Sciences, Jan/Feb, 1999 p. 24-29

The bulk of Small's article discusses the work of UofM anthropologist Beverly Strassmann's study of menstruation among the Dogon of West Africa. What she was seeking was the possible roles that menstrual taboos could play into “natural fertility” populations. Strassmann believed that there were important biological roles being generally ignored, in regards to menstruation and reproduction.

The Dogon worked out to be a very good choice for study. The Dogon women spend their menstrual cycle segregated to the menstrual huts. Through urinalysis Strassmann determined that this segregation was closely adhered, in spite of most of the women finding the experience extremely unpleasant. This made it very easy to follow the cycles of the women in the villages Strassmann was studying. And with nearly two years of data on 477 complete cycles, studying ninety-three women, there was a great deal to work with.

One of the reasons for the taboo, she discovered, was to help determine paternity. In a culture where the father is responsible for his children and where property is passed along to male heirs, it is critically important to keep track of who the father of a given child is. And when it is everyone can see who is going to the menstrual huts, and who isn't – it becomes easier to determine who impregnated a given women. This is also important because the Dogon people are polygonous and there is no taboo against sexual intercourse for those who are unmarried.

This taboo also managed to make it clear if a woman happens to be infertile or menopausal. When a women in prime reproductive age is always visiting the hut, it becomes apparent that she is obviously not likely to reproduce. On the other hand, when I women stops visiting the hut altogether, is it obvious she is no longer fertile.

Strassmann also hypothesized that menstruation may have evolved as a method for conserving resources – keeping the body from using too much energy on reproduction, during a cycle that renders women infertile for a period of time. Instead of producing the excess that usually goes into creating a fertile place for a potential zygote to begin gestation, during the period of flushing things slow down entirely.

What I found most interesting however, is the possibility that women in Western society are at a distinct biological advantage to women who live within a natural fertility paradigm. The data shows that women in Dogon society, for example, only have an average of 110 menstrual cycles in their lifetimes, compared to the average of 350 to 400 for Westerners. Between reproducing at a significantly higher rate than Westerners, and breast feeding vigorously for longer periods than most Western women, they don't menstruate nearly as often.

I also found the discussion of the way that Dogon culture utilizes menstruation as a multitool for determining a great many issues within their society. While the underlying reasoning is significantly different, it turns out that this is a very useful tool for their culture, for a whole lot of reasons.

Finally, I find the interconnection of anthropological study, biology and sociology extremely interesting. Beyond the subject matter, the cross discipline integration is of particular interest to me – especially as I am seeing that there are a lot of other disciplines and even very different fields of study, that have a great deal of relevance to the direction I am going with my studies and where I want to go with my career. It is terribly exciting to discover new directions, new areas that have are potentially critical components of the places I wish to go – the ideas that I am keen on fostering and developing.


Toaster Sunshine said...

When next you trip through town, remind me to let you borrow Leonard Shalain's "Sex, Time and Power: How Women's Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution", which is primarily about menstruation's influence on developing indigenous societies. From my training in molecular biology, I largely regarded it as a bunch of interesting, over-interpreted crap, but your perspective may be considerable more nuanced with your background.

DuWayne Brayton said...

OOOHHH!!! Shiny!!!

I will definitely do that...And FYI, both Juniper and I are rather excited about visiting on our way through from the airport...