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Keywords:

  • life history;
  • age at first birth;
  • menarche;
  • infant mortality;
  • hunter-gathers (foragers);
  • Pumé;
  • South American Indians

Abstract

Because humans have slow life histories, discussions of the optimal age at first birth have stressed the benefits of delayed reproduction. However, given the diversity of ecological, fertility, and mortality environments in which humans live, reproductive maturity is expected to be highly variable. This article uses reproductive histories to examine a pattern of early menarche and first birth among the Pume, a group of South American foragers. Age at menarche and first birth are constructed using both retrospective and cross-sectional data for females over the age of 10 (n = 83). The objectives are first to define these patterns and then discuss their reproductive consequences. On average, Pume girls reach menarche at age 12.9, and give birth to their first child at age 15.3–15.5 (retrospective and cross-sectional data, respectively). This populational average falls several years prior to what often is considered the human norm. Two questions are then considered. What are the infant mortality costs across a mother's reproductive career? How does surviving fertility vary with age at first birth? Results indicate that the youngest of first-time mothers (<14) are four times more likely to loose their firstborns than older first-time mothers (≥17). Given parity-specific mortality rates, the optimal strategy to minimize infant mortality and maximize reproductive span is to initiate childbearing in the midteens. Women gain no additional advantage in surviving fertility by delaying childbearing until their late teens. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2008. © 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.