Biological Anthropologist working in an interdisciplinary setting at LSHTM to bring together anthropological, demographic and public health perspectives on social support and maternal and child health
Non-maternal carers (allomothers) are hypothesized to lighten the mother’s workload, allowing for the specialized human life history including relatively short interbirth intervals and multiple dependent offspring. To date, evolutionary anthropology’s approach to understanding allomothering has largely (but not exclusively) investigated the ultimate explanations of allomothering (i.e. why it evolved) by examining allomother effects on maternal reproductive success (measured by fertility, child health and/or development and child survival). From this perspective, allomothers are assumed to reduce maternal energetic burden, freeing up the mother, allowing her to ‘stack’ offspring. For a holistic understanding of cooperative childrearing, however, ultimate reasons must be complemented with an understanding of how allomothering translates to increased reproductive success. In addition, while a wide range of contemporary and historical cross-cultural studies have highlighted that mothers receive help with childcare from various individuals (allomothers), little exploration has occurred into why we see diversity in allomothers. This project seeks to explore the complexities of childcare in the Agta.
Public health messaging, by presenting breastfeeding as ‘natural’, ‘easy’ and ‘good,’ may be underpreparing women for the challenges of breastfeeding, as well as marginalising and stigmatising those who struggle to breastfeed or choose alternative methods of infant feeding. This messaging, we suggest, creates additional barriers to breastfeeding. However, we currently lack large scale, quantitative data able to untangle cause from effect; a reliance on retrospective methodologies has impeded understanding of how prior expectations interact with women’s real-time experiences that ultimately influence infant feeding decisions. We will address prior methodological limitations by developing and piloting an innovative mobile application (app), to collect daily data on women’s infant feeding experiences and decisions. The app will allow mothers to track their own feeding journeys, whilst facilitating exploration of breastfeeding narratives and feeding behaviour in unprecedented depth.
The debate about the relationship between fertility and subsistence is an old one, and an example of a classic anthropological investigation into the relationship between food production, behaviour and demography. Anthropological and archaeological theory present hunter-gatherer fertility as ‘relatively low’ compared to other subsistence types. However, the evidence (based on cross-cultural averages) is mixed, suggesting a wide range of heterogeneity in fertility regardless of subsistence type. Despite inconsistent results the literature on the demography of small-scale societies still tends to assume hunter-gatherers have lower fertility compared to other populations. This may well be true, but we lack the evidence to support this statement due to theoretical and methodological shortcomings in previous research. This proposed research project seeks to re-open this classic question by investigating the relationship between fertility and subsistence at the individual level from a wide range of small-scale populations to overcome previous limitations.
While the public health literature demonstrates a positive association between social support and breastfeeding, research has generally focused on informational and emotional support, overlooking practical help. Research also overlook wider sources of support, such as grandparents. Informed by evolutionary theory, we investigate how different types of support from different allomothers (such as fathers, grandmothers and professionals) are associated with breastfeeding duration and maternal experience of infant feeding. In the winter of 2017-2018 over 700 women from the UK took part in an online survey asking about their experiences infant feeding, problems they faced and support they received. Findings will contribute to public health understandings of how best to support mothers during the first few years of their children’s lives.
My PhD was part of the at UCL which studied hunter-gatherers in Congo (Mbendjele), Malaysia(Batek), Thailand (Maniq) and the Philippines (Agta), using behavioural ecology, life history theory, theories of cooperation, cultural transmission and genetics to explore how variation in life history traits, kin selection, mate systems, cooperative behaviour, differentially contribute to hunter-gatherer resilience in the past, present and future. Working as a team of 6 PhD students (3 in the Philippines and 3 in the Congo) we collected a mountain of data on all spheres of life. This produced a large number of articles on cooperation, marriage systems, social organisation, aging, social networks and cumulative culture. My research focused on cooperative childrearing, health and livelihood change in the Agta.
MRC Skills Development Fellow
Developing and running courses in Biological Anthropology
Hunter-Gatherer Resilience Project
Running undergraduate tutorials
INEQ-CITIES Research Project