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Cultural determinants of population stability in the Havasupai Indians.

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Cultural Determinants of Population Stability in the
Havasupai Indians
University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona
The Havasupai are a small tribe who have traditionally practiced very
productive agriculture i n a highly fertile, well-watered canyon. The agricultural subsistence base was formerly supplemented by hunting and gathering in adjacent areas
which before significant American encroachment were plentifully supplied with desired
game and wild vegetal products. Under these circumstances it would be expected that
the tribe would be characterized by a n expanding population. However, the population
has been stable throughout historic times, approximately 200 years. In order to determine the significant factors responsible for the maintenance of population stability, all
available information regarding Havasupai fertility, morbidity, mortality, and emigration was examined. An analysis of these data indicates that the population balance has
been maintained primarily through cultural practices which limit fertility. Among the
most important of these practices are the age at mamage, the age span differential
between spouses, the high number of unmarried adults to be found in the population
at any given time, the spermatocidal effect of the steam lodge, and perhaps the practice of infanticide and induced abortion.
The Havasupai are a small tribe who
have traditionally practiced highly productive agriculture in a very fertile wellwatered side canyon of the Grand Canyon
in Arizona. The agricultural base was formerly supplemented by hunting and gathering. Food had always been plentiful;
hunger and crop failure were unknown
(Iliff, '54). Under these circumstances we
would expect to find that the tribe has been
characterized by a rapidly expanding population. However, the population has been
stable throughout historic times or approximately 200 years and has characteristically
ranged between 166 and 300 (Spier, '28;
Smithson, '59; Martin, '66). The population
low of 166 occurred in 1906 after two
years of measles epidemics and coincided
with the initial occurrence of continual
white contact which began in the first decade of the twentieth century. Before significant white contact, the population had
peaked at 300 in 1869 and 281 in 1899
(Spier, '28). Since the advent of modern
medical and obstetrical care in 1930, the
population began to rise slowly to the present unprecedented peak of 350. The availability of wage labor outside the canyon
has permitted the absorption of the recent
increase in populatian, thus having an imAM. J. PHYS.ANTHROI
portant effect on demographic as well as
other aspects of Havasupai life (Martin,
'66). However, this paper is concerned
with the population stability exhibited between the time of the first census of the
Havasupai in 1776 and the 1940's, when
modern medical and economic factors permitted the present limited expansion.
In order to determine the factors responsible for the maintenance of that population stability, all available information regarding fertility, morbidity, mortality, and
emigration has been examined. The information regarding disease and mortality are
rather poor since no satisfactory records
exist. Nevertheless I feel that the data obtained are sufficient to pinpoint significant
factors in the maintenance of population
stability. These data indicate that the population balance has been maintained primarily through cultural factors which limit
The average Havasupai household consists of 4.2 persons. Relatives are regarded
as those to whom one is consanguineally
related through the grandparental generation. Marriage is prohibited within this
range (Spier, '28; Smithson, '59).
Marriage is not marked by any ceremony.
It is herein defined as the relationship
wherein a person enters into a regular sexual union characterized by open cohabitation. Secret liaisons before this time are
termed premarital sexual relations.
Menarche is expected at about 12-13
years of age (Nag, '62). As may be seen
from table 1, however, age at entry into
regular sexual union is considerably delayed. The ideal age for first marriage is
stated by the Havasupai to be 25-30 for
women and 35-40 for men (Smithson,
'59). While it is unlikely that this ideal was
ever approximated, there is some evidence
that the age at first marriage before the
turn of the century did approximate those
found by Smithson ('59) and Nag ('62) in
the mid-twentieth century and that the age
for women dropped at least two years in
the 1910-1914 period in response to a severe shortage of women during this postepidemic period (Spier, '28), then rose
again. Thus, age at entry into regular sexual union is a highly significant factor in
depressing Havasupai fertility.
A problem in Havasupai demography is
that of the previously imbalanced sex ratio.
See table 2. To see what this means in
terms of absolute numbers of individuals,
see the figures for 1919. Information from
the last 40 years indicates that the sex
ratio has been balanced (Smithson, '59;
Martin, '66). Prior to 1930, however, there
was some loss of women in childbirth. In
addition, it is possible that female infanticide may have been responsible for the
imbalance. Cases of female infanticide in
the case of twins is known but the actual
extent of occurrence is in doubt since today
the Havasupai deny its practice ever occurred despite the documentation of spe-
cific cases in the past (Iliff, '54; Smithson,
'59; Spier, '28). Thus, a combination of
losses in childbirth and female infanticide
may have been responsible.
Whatever the causes of the previously
imbalanced sex ratio, the important problem in fertility is not so much the absolute
sex ratio as the number of women in the
childbearing age brackets and how these
are distributed in sexual unions. In the
case of the Havasupai we see that, despite
the balanced sex ratio of recent years, a
combination of biological and cultural factors has resulted in a culturally created
shortage of marriageable women. We have
seen that there was a greater absolute number of males in the earlier decades (18811924). In addition, there is a greater longevity of males in the age brackets above
age 62. For example, the 1964 population
contained a total of 16 men and only three
women in this age group (Martin, '66).
This phenomenon has resulted in a relative
shortage of marriageable women because
the older men not only tend to remarry as
they are widowed, but often marry women
much younger than themselves. In 1950
there were six marriages in which the men
were older than their wives by 15-41 years.
In each case the men had all been married
at least once before, but it was the first
marriage for five of the six wives (Smithson, '59). The result of this practice is an
average age span differential of 11-12
years for the married population. Again
see table 1. This in itself might not be a
significant factor in a larger population.
But Lasker ('54) has calculated for 1919
a breeding population of 39. Thus with a
very small breeding population I feel that
Mean age at marriage
Mean age at marriage with both spouses previously unmarried:
Mean age at marriage regardless of whether either party previously married:
Average age
Mean age at first marriage: 2
Smithson, '59.
Nag, '62.
such a wide age span differential between
spouses is also a significant factor in the
depression of fertility.
Table 3 shows the average age at the
births of the f i s t and the last child among
the Havasupai. The average age at the
birth of the first child is almost 20 while
that at the birth of the last is 38 (Nag,
'62). The delay in onset of reproduction
activity is clearly related to the delay in the
age at marriage. I feel that the early termination of the reproductive period may be
due, at least in part, to the 11-12 year age
span differential between the spouses.
Table 4 shows the average number of
live births for all married women aged 1554 in 1960. Thus married couples were producing an average of 4.4 children, an extremely low figure. Induced abortion is
acknowledged by informants for both the
past and the present and various methods
of inducing abortions are widely known.
However, no one admits to having had any
and no one will discuss specific cases (Nag,
Sex ratio
Ratio of males
to females
122/100 (= 98 males,
79 females)
Adapted from
Dobyns and Euler, '67;
Spier, '28; Martin, '66
Childbearing period
Woman's general childbearing period: 1
ages 15-49
Havasupai woman's childbearing period:
average age at birth of first child 19.7
average age at birth of last child 38.0
'62; Smithson, '59). Thus the role of abortion in reducing fertility levels is difficult
to ascertain. However, I think that the
open admission of its practice in the face
of a pronounced reticence to discuss specific cases is an indication that it is not
an uncommon practice.
Nag ('62) found that five out of 46 or
10.6% of married women over age 19 were
childless, a high incidence in such a small
population. Of course some of these women
are quite young and may eventually bear
children. Yet, in the 1950s, two older married women had never borne children. In
addition, three brides of five years were
childless (Smithson, '59). Thus at least
14% of the women in the breeding pool
were not producing for at least five years,
a sizeable proportion in so small a pool.
There is no social stigma attached to barrenness (Nag, '62; Spier, '28).
Among the most common causes of sterility in a population are venereal diseases
and vitamin deficiency. Yet venereal disease among the Havasupai is said to be
rare (Nag, '62). Vitamins A and E, believed to be essential to normal spermatogenic activity, are adequately supplied by
the diet, which includes both green and
yellow vegetal materials.
Perhaps a major contributing factor to
the low fertility of the Havasupai may be
traced to the ubiquitous use of the steam
bath by the men. The human testes function at a temperature which is lower than
that of the abdominal viscera and it appears that the human male may be temporarily sterilized by raising the temperature
of the scrotum. Sperm production is affected by only slight changes in the temperature of the circulation in the scrotum
and heat also affects normal mature
sperms, rendering them infertile. The application of cold to the scrotum also reduces fertility (Glover and Young, '66).
The Havasupai men customarily enter
their sweat lodges four times an afternoon
for periods of about ten minutes each.
Then each entry is usually followed by a
Maternity ratio
Women, aged 15-54,having borne live children: 5.5
Women, aged 15-54,including all married childless women: 4.4
Nag, '62.
plunge in an icy stream. Investigators have widows were some who were widowed after
found the temperature of the sweat lodge their childbearing period and therefore
to range from 118-157" Fahrenheit (Spier, have no significance for the fertility level.
'28; Smithson and Euler, '64). Steam and But Martin ('64) found five unmarried
other forms of heat being effective sper- women between the ages of 18-25 and
matocidal agents, as are also local applica- eight unmarried men in the same age
tions of cold, it may be readily seen that group. Thus the high number of unmarried
this practice may be the single most sig- persons at any given time would appear to
nificant factor in the depression of Hava- be another significant factor in the depressupai fertility.
sion of fertility.
Premarital sexual activities are quite
Among other possible contributing faccommon, but pregnancies resulting from tors are the use of native contraceptives
them are said to have been rare until re- whose effectiveness is unknown and the
cently. Abandonment of such children by formerly rather lengthy lactation period of
the mother is not uncommon, so that il- approximately two years.
legitimate children are often raised by the
Emigration as a measure of population
maternal grandparents ( Smithson, '59). control seems to have been inoperative
The rarity of illegitimate children during until the availability of wage work in the
the first part of the twentieth century may 1940's. There being virtually no water on
have been due to the reduced age of wom- the plateau above the canyon, an agriculen's first marriage. However, Smithson tural subsistence base could not be estab('59) feels that infanticide may have had lished there. Game and wild vegetal proda role. I agree since the illegitimacy rate ucts were formerly plentiful on the plateau
seems to have risen at about the same time and were at one time regularly exploited
when hospital deliveries became almost during the winter months. If the Havasuuniversal. Thus the birth of the illegitimate pai had been willing to give up their agrichild was legally established and i t could cultural base for a poorer hunting and
not be destroyed.
gathering economy, they could theoretically
Another important factor affecting the have expanded out of the canyon. Through
fertility level is the fact that, while few historic times, however, their plateau range
people remain permanently unmarried, the actually shrank as the Walapai and Paiutes
number of unmarried persons at any given steadily crowded them out (Spier, '28).
time may be quite high. Both widows and Thus, pressure from other plateau dwellers
widowers are expected to delay remarriage prevented expansion out of the canyon for
one to three years although this waiting the Havasupai as a group.
period is not always observed (Spier, '28;
Yet, if emigration as a group was not
Smithson, '59; Nag, '62). Divorced persons possible, surplus population might still be
may remarry with no delay. Yet despite the drained off by the absorption of individuals
tendency of the widowed and divorced to into neighboring tribes through intermarremarry, there was a total of 27 unmarried riage. However, according to Spier ( ' 2 8 ) ,
persons over age 30 in 1955. See table 5. intertribal marriages were relatively few
Notice that five men and two women had and of short duration, occurring primarily
never married (Smithson, '59). Among the when foreign women came into the canyon
Unmarried adults
30 or above
3 0 4 3 only
6 widowers
7 divorced
5 never married
Smithson, '59.
Martin, '66.
5 widows
2 divorced
2 never married
on trading expeditions, remained for a
time, and then usually returned to their
own people. At the time of his fieldwork, in
1918, he found that a total of 11 intertribal
marriages had resulted in the immigration
of eight persons into the canyon and the
emigration of only three Havasupai. Thus,
immigration exceeded emigration at this
time. If, however, most intertribal marriages were characteristically of relatively
short duration and both immigrants and
emigrants generally returned to their own
tribes, then this practice would appear to
have little effect on the population structure. In any case, emigration as a factor in
the maintenance of population stability
seems to have been inoperative.
While there is little good data on morbidity and mortality, we find that the Havasupai historically lived under generally
sanitary conditions, had well-balanced
diets, were and are vigorous outdoorsmen
who are generally healthy (lliff, '54; Spier,
'28). They take meticulous care of babies
and even had the original disposable diapers. Babies are placed on pre-masticated
foods by four months of age (Smithson,
'59) so that their diets conform to the general level.
Although many new diseases and consequent epidemics assailed the Havasupai
sporadically following white contact, the
problem seems to have been of short duration. In 1965, the Arizona Commission of
Indian Affairs ('65) reported the health
problems in the following order of importance: ( 1 ) diabetes; (2) dental care; ( 3 )
pneumonia; ( 4 ) children's diseases. It is
noteworthy that dental care precedes pneumonia and children's diseases. Nag ('62)
has calculated a modern infant mortality
rate of 6.4% and a child mortality rate of
2 5 . 1 % . This would seem to confirm the
relative unimportance of children's diseases.
It is known that the general mortality
rate rose sharply with a population loss of
up to 6% a year (Martin, '66) after the
turn of the century, following white contact and the establishment of the reservation. It is further known that the infant
mortality rate dropped sharply in the
1950's (Nag, '62). Yet it is difficult to say
with any accuracy what the long-term mortalitv pattern was. Since the mortalitv rate
rise at the turn of the century was the result of white contact and the introduction
of new diseases, it may be that the present
mortality rate approximates more closely
the pre-intensive contact situation. The
elimination of deaths in childbirth is the
one certain effect o€ modern medicine on
the mortality pattern.
Mortality by causes other than disease
is evidently unusual. Murder and suicide
are said to be uncommon (Smithson, '59;
Spier, '28). Warfare was in aboriginal times
avoided to the extent possible. Stating that
their population was too small to be risked
in warfare, the Havasupai claimed that in
the event of an attack they simply hid in
the vastnesses of the Grand Canyon until
all danger was past (Spier, '28).
While the data, then, on mortality are
too poor to make sound inferences on its
specific role in the maintenance of Havasupai population stability, a look at table 6
will quickly reveal that it is the depression
of fertility which is primarily responsible.
With a live birth rate of 4.4 children per
married woman and a child mortality rate
of 25.1 % , which equals 1.1 child mortality
rate per woman, we see that each woman
produces an average of 3 . 3 surviving children. Since i t takes the production of two
children to replace the parents, there is a
surplus production of only 1.3 children per
couple. Sufficient information is available
to compute only one completed pregnancy
ratio for approximately the same period.
This shows a surplus production of 1.7 children per couple, thereby corresponding
quite closely. These figures are for the middle decade of the twentieth century. Under
earlier conditions i t could be expected to
have been even less. For example, there has
been an increase in illegitimate births in
the last few decades. Therefore, i t can be
seen that the population stability exhibited
by the Havasupai has been due predomiTABLE 6
Number of chiEdren per couple
mid twentieth century
Maternity ratio
Child mortality (25.1%)
Surviving children
Replacement of parents
Surplus production of children
Nag, '62.
Nag, '62.
nantly to cultural practices which limit fertility. Among the most important of these
are the age at marriage, the age span differential between spouses, the high number of unmarried adults to be found in the
population at any given time, the spermatocidal effect of the steam bath, and perhaps
the practice of infanticide and abortion.
I would like to emphasize that this is a
preliminary study and that many more
problems still remain. For example, I SUSpect that the average Havasupai woman
may not produce 4.4 living children, but
that many produce more while others produce less and a few produce none at all.
The questions, then, are who produces how
many children and what are the factors
which are directly involved. Are more children produced by those couples living outside the canyon where the use of the steam
bath has declined? Do some men within
the canyon use the steam bath more frequently than others?
The effects of the steam bath still need
further exploration. Sperm counts are necessary to determine its exact effects on
male sterility and the length of time such
effects last. The frequency of coitus, which
I believe to be quite high, needs to be investigated. There then remains the problem
of the effect of frequent coitus on fertility,
a question which is still under dispute by
It is hoped that, because of changing attitudes toward abortion in the United
States, the Havasupai will become less
reticent to discuss this aspect of population control with investigators. On the
other hand, the problem of the role of infanticide may never be resolved. In the
1950’s, Smithson (’59) found an illegitimacy rate of 20%. If the practice of infanticide was at one time a significant factor in the rarity of illegitimate births, then
the present illegitimacy rate may be su%cient in itself to account for the recent increase in population.
In any case, there is no question that the
Havasupai would presently like to limit
their population by legal means. In the
mid-l960’s, when a United States Public
Health physician interested in population
control offered them such means, they were
eagerly accepted and effectively utilized
(Robert S . Drew, pers. comm.). Therefore,
it is reasonable to assume that abortion
and infanticide, acceptable within the aboriginal cultural context, were and may
continue to be employed surreptitiously. It
is hoped that detailed answers to some of
these questions will be elicited by proposed
fieldwork in the near future.
I would like to take this opportunity to
express my appreciation to the American
Association of Physical Anthropologists for
the recognition and encouragement which
the receipt of the Juan Comas Award has
brought to me. In addition, I would like to
thank Dr. Hennann K. Bleibtreu whose
seminar on Human Populations showed me
a means by which to integrate the discipline of cultural anthropology with a longtime interest in human demography. The
intellectual spark which initiated this study
is his; any defects in the study are entirely
my own.
Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs 1965
Reservation survey on health.
Dobyns, H. F., and R. C. Euler 1967 The ghost
dance of 1889 among the Pai Indians of Northwestern Arizona, Prescott College Press, Prescott, Arizona.
Glover, T. D., and D. H. Young 1966 Temperature and the production of spermatozoa. In:
Human Ecology. Jack B. Bressler, ed. Addison
Wesley Publishing Co., Inc., Reading, Massachusetts.
Iliff, F. 1954 People of the Blue Waters; My
Adventures Among the Walapai and Havasupai
Indians. Harper & Brothers, New York.
Lasker, G. W. 1954 Human evolution in contemporary communities. Southwestern J. Anthropology, 10: 353-365.
Martin, J. F. 1966 Continuity and change in
Havasupai social and economic organization.
Unpubl. Doctoral Dissertation, University of
Nag, M. 1962 Factors affecting human fertility
in nonindustrial societies: a crosscultural survey. Yale University Publications in Anthropology No. 66.
Smithson, C. L. 1959 The Havasupai woman.
University of Utah Anthropological Papers No.
Smithson, C. L.,and R. C. Euler 1964 Havasupai religion and mythology. University of Utah
Anthropological Papers No. 68.
Spier, L. 1928 Havasupai ethnology. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 2 9 ( 3 ) .
Wrong, D. H. 1961 Population and Society.
Rev. ed. Random House, New York.
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