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The Human Significance of the Skin

Ashley Montagu
Published by Columbia University Press/NY in 1971
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2006


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The material in this book has been important to me during the twenty-two years which have passed since I first read it. What prompted me to do a review of this book was an email I received recently which showed beautiful images of butterflies and each photo had a portion of a story which went along with it(1).

One day, a small opening appeared in a cocoon; a man sat and watched for several hours for a butterfly to appear. It struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then, it seems to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could and it could not go any further. So the man decided to help the butterfly: he took a pair of scissors and opened the cocoon. The butterfly then emerged easily.

But it had a withered body, it was tiny with shriveled wings.

The man continued to watch because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would open, enlarge and expand, to be able to support the butterfly's body, and become firm. Neither happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a withered body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly.

What the man, in his kindness and his goodwill did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening, were nature's way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings, so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.

This immediately caused me to remember what I learned from Touching, and one particular issue among many it allowed me to understand: the process of Caesarian births or C-Sections. What the man did with a scissors to the cocoon is what a doctor does with a scalpel to a woman’s body. The doctor tries to assist Nature with something it doesn't need assistance to do. I've been counting and it seems from my own experience that among young mothers of my acquaintance who have given birth in the past twenty years, over fifty percent of them had C-Sections. When I asked them why, which I was prompted to do by Montagu’s book, most of the mothers told me in effect that these Caesarian surgeries were done for the scheduling convenience of themselves or their doctors. Or they repeated some concern the doctor had which rose, in my opinion, to the level of concern the man with the scissors had over the butterfly. It seems to me that more and more doctors are treating a natural occurrence, childbirth, as a medical procedure(2). And, it also seems to me that the more complicated the medical procedure, the more doctors feel as though they have "done their jobs rightly" — and therefore the less likely they are be sued if anything goes wrong. But, it also occurs to me that they will never be sued if the C-Section-birthed child grows up to be a physically or emotionally crippled adult, will they?

I wonder about the effects of having a doctor surgically remove a child from the womb and how it relates to their subsequent development. Will they become crawling butterflies because they did not develop the soul and bodily forces necessary for life that are garnered in the process of being squeezed through the birth canal?

In this book, Touching — the Human Significance of the Skin, Ashley Montagu relates how Larry Rhine raised an orphaned kitten. Everyone knows that kittens will die if removed from their mother’s presence immediately after birth but Montague describes the reason why and explains that motherless kittens can be kept alive by stimulation of their skin in certain places by a surrogate mother. Larry Rhine called the ASPCA and they gave him directions how to do this and his kitten flourished. What he did with his orphaned kitten was to use a moistened Q-Tip (cotton swab) to massage the path that food takes through the kitten's body. In his book, Montague points out that the human being in its passage through the birth canal undergoing a similar "licking" or touching of every section of its body from genital region to mouth, thus sending signals to its brain of the location of the alimentary canal.

Since kittens spend very little time in the birth canal — they pop right out without any squeezing at all — it is as if kittens and many other small mammals are all delivered by C-Section. What is the function that the mother of the kittens performs right after birth which keeps them alive? She licks the baby kittens from their genital region up through the center of their body to their mouth. This is the path that food will take for the baby kitten, and by this licking, the kitten's brain is able to locate the alimentary canal and its position through the body.

In his book The Trauma of Birth, Otto Rank points out that those who avoid the trauma of birth by the heroic actions of a C-Section often seek in their external life later to become heroes in some way so as to attain in later life what they were cheated of at birth.

This brings up for me the question of the wisdom of C-Sections for convenience. Certainly when the life of the mother or the baby or both is threatened by a baby too large to pass through the pelvic girdle, a C-Section may be deemed necessary. The C-Section replaces the natural massaging passage of the newborn through its mother's womb with the artificial inducement of anesthesia, an incision of its mother, and the baby being lifted out directly from the womb by a surgeon into the cold world.

The first known C-Section was performed on Julius Caesar, a well-known hero of the Romans, who was also known to be beset by epileptic seizures as an adult. Incidentally, Caesar died by having a knife shoved into his body in the same place where his mother had one shoved into her body when he was born. One can only wonder of the effects of this latest fad (powered by the illusion of the "insurance company will pay for it") which is creating large numbers of C-Section babies, children, and adults appearing amongst us in the world. It's enough to make one's "skin crawl."

Montagu talks about the human skin as an organ of the body, but is more interested in how the exercise of this organ affects our human development. Specifically, how we develop inwardly is affected by the specific ways we are stimulated at the surface of our bodies from conception onward. He writes in his Preface:

[page viii] The skin as an organ, the largest organ of the body, was very much neglected until quite recently. But it is not an organ as such that I am here concerned with the skin; rather, in contrast to the psychosomatic or centrifugal approach, I am interested in what may be called the somatopsychic or centripetal approach. In short, I am interested in the manner in which tactile experience or its lack affects the development of behavior; hence, "the mind of the skin."

Montagu had read W. J. O'Donovan's 1927 classic "Dermatological Neuroses" which pointed out how "distressing thoughts may break out in boils in the skin, that urticaria, psoriasis, and many other skin disorders may originate in the mind." That is the centrifugal method: from the mind outward to the skin; Montagu is concerned in this book with the centripetal direction: from the skin inward to the mind. (Page 10)

What caused him to become interested in this approach was a study on rats who had their thyroid and parathyroid glands removed. It was expected they would all die, but some of them survived. A large portion of the survivors came from a group of rats who were petted and gentled. The other group was only attended by humans for routine feeding and cage-cleaning. This group was high-strung, exhibited fear, and bit those who tried to hold them.

[page 13] Let us see what happened when thyroid and parathyroid glands were removed in the 304 animals operated from both groups. Within forty-eight hours of operation 79 percent of the irritable rats died, while only 13 percent of the gentled rats died — a difference of 66 percent in favor of the gentled rats.

A similar surgical experiment with the notoriously excitable wild Norway rats led to most of the rats dying within a couple of weeks.

Montagu could find little in print about how gentling could produce dramatic increases in survivability, so he began to consult animal breeders, veterinarians, and zoo staffs and what he found was amazing. He also began to understand in a new way the function of the "washing" a mammal mother gives its young. The licking was not for cleaning the baby at all, but for some important physiological development.

[page 15] It seemed a reasonable hypothesis that . . . the proper kind of cutaneous stimulation is essential for the adequate organic and behavioral development of the organism. It seemed likely that the licking mammalian mothers give their newborn, which they continue for durable periods thereafter, probably serves a basic series of functions, since it was universal among mammals with the exception of man, and the possible exception of the great apes. In that exception, I reasoned, there probably also lay an interesting story, as, indeed, we shall later see.

What happens in general to healthy animal babies who remain unlicked? Animal handlers say that the babies are likely to die of a "functional failure of the genitourinary system and/or the gastrointestinal system."

[page 15] Breeders of chihuahua dogs were particularly insistent upon this, for according to them the mothers often make little or no attempt to lick their young. Hence there is a high mortality rate among these puppies, caused by failure to eliminate, unless some substitute for maternal licking, such as stroking by the human hand, is provided.

When a Professor Reyniers led a group trying to raise germ-free animals, all the animals died! The correction came from a former zoo-worker who advised them to begin stroking "the genitals and perineal regions of the young animals with a wisp of cotton after each feeding." Several other experiments are listed, all of which point to healthy effects from cutaneous stimulation.

[page 20, 21] Indeed, the more we learn about the effects of cutaneous stimulation the more pervasively significant for healthy development do we find it to be. For example, in one of the most recent studies reported, it was found that early infantile cutaneous stimulation exerts a highly beneficial influence upon the immunological system, having important consequences for resistance to infectious and other diseases.

The amazing thing is that the process of cutaneous stimulation by the mothers of their newly born offspring works to the benefit of the mothers as well as their babies. An experiment with placing collars on pregnant rats to keep them from stimulating themselves by licking led to retarded development of their mammary glands, less attention to building a nest, and avoidance of their newborns which led to their deaths if no outside stimulation was provided. The implications for human mothers must arise in any right-thinking human being, especially in this world of sterilized nurseries which shield newborns from their mothers and vice-versa.

[page 23, 24] In the domestic collie, McKinney has shown that, immediately after whelping, removal of the pups for little more than an hour seriously retards the recovery of the mother, a recovery which is accelerated by the rooting, nuzzling, and nursing of the young. McKinney suggests that similar undesirable effects may be produced in human mothers as a consequence of the practice of removing their babies from them at birth without permitting the continued contact that is so urgent a need in the newborn.

Luckily for human babies, the process of licking begins in the womb and extends through the duration of labor which is about fourteen hours for the first born about half as long for subsequent children. Note the implications for the baby born by C-Section: little or no time is spent undergoing its "licking" in its mother's womb on its way to being born. The C-Section baby is robbed of its cutaneous stimulation prior to emerging into the world.

[page 40] I suggest that one of the equivalents for "licking" is represented by the long period of labor that the parturient human female undergoes. The average duration of labor with the firstborn is fourteen hours; with subsequent-born children the average duration of labor is eight hours. During this period the contractions of the uterus provide massive stimulations of the fetal skin. These uterine contractions serve much the same functions and end-effects that licking of the newborn does in other animals. In the womb the fetus has been constantly stimulated by the amniotic fluid and by the growing of its own body against the walls of the uterus. These stimulations are greatly intensified during the process of labor in order to prepare the sustaining systems for postnatal functioning in ways somewhat different from those which were necessary in the aquatic environment in which the fetus has thus far spent his life. This intensification of cutaneous stimulations is especially necessary in the human fetus because, contrary to general belief, the period of gestation is not completed when the baby is born. It is only half-completed. It will be necessary for us to discuss this matter further, in order to gain some insight into the precarious condition in which the young of human kind is born, and why it is necessary that the human neonate undergo certain kinds of cutaneous stimulation.

The human baby, contrary to popular belief, has not completed its gestation upon birth to the extent that other animals have. The reason has to do with evolutionary advances of human bodies especially in the area of the head. I have often explained to people that if our brain were fully developed at childbirth, we would all be stillborn because we would be unable to pass through the pelvic girdle of our mothers. It was in this book that I first found the definitive support for that statement.

[page 43] In man . . . the large body size, and especially the large size of the head at 266 ˝ days of fetal age, necessitate the birth of the child at that time. If it were not born then and it continued to grow at the rate at which it is geared to grown, it could not be born at all — with fatal consequences for the continuation of the human species.

The pelvic bones are fixed in size and the baby's head must fit through them. Even though the human skeleton is larger than the anthropoids, the human being is the only one with a naturally erect posture and that results in a smaller pelvic passageway than a non-erect anthropoid can have. The bones of the human baby's skull are soft and work like tectonic plates which can overlap while passing through the pelvic girdle and move out into position while the human brain doubles in mass from birth to three years old. At three, the skull's tectonic plates begin to knit together and the proverbial "soft spot" in the baby's head disappears.

[page 43] During parturition the pelvic outlet enlarges somewhat with the relaxation of the pelvic ligaments, enough to permit the head of the child, with a certain amount of moulding and compression, to pass through the birth canal. In adaptation to this situation the skull bones of the human infant, in relation to the membranes in which these bones develop, grow much less than those of the ape infant of the same gestation age. Thus the human infant's skull bones allow for a considerable amount of movement and overlapping in adaptation to the compressive forces that will act upon them during the process of birth. The human infant, then, is born when it is because it must be born at that time; otherwise the rapid rate at which its brain grows would make it impossible to be born at all. The brain growth of the anthropoid infants presents no such problems, particularly in view of the mother's generous pelvic arrangements.

There is a name for the process by which humans complete their gestation after being born: neoteny.

[page 45, 46] The name refers to the process whereby the functional and structural features of the young (fetal or juvenile) of ancestral forms are retained in the developmental stages of the maturing adult, from infancy to adulthood. Man's large head, flat face, roundheadedness, small face and teeth, absence of brow ridges, thinness of skull bones, late suture closure, relative hairlessness, thin nails, prolonged period of educability, playfulness, love of fun, and many other traits all constitute evidence of neoteny.

Gestation in the human being continues for as long outside the womb as it does inside the womb according to Bostock, who places the end of gestation at the age at which a child begins to crawls on all fours, about nine months old. Montagu suggests that during this period the child is usually at its mother's breast which creates a natural birth control mechanism. His next statement, while plausible, has been proven inaccurate since the 1970s when he wrote this book.

[page 46] Nursing the child at the breast causes the suppression of ovulation for variable periods of time, and thus constitutes a natural, although not altogether dependable. method of child-spacing.

Studies in last thirty years of Masai women in Africa show that they have their first child at the onset of menarche, nurse their baby till it is four years old, and then have a second menstrual period, get pregnant again. After four or five children, they enter menopause and have no more periods. A typical Masai woman might have a total of half a dozen menstrual periods during their entire life! It seems that, contrary to what Montagu thought at the time, nursing is a dependable method of birth control. But there is one hitch: one must nurse exactly as the Masai women do: every 30 minutes for four years. Stopping nursing, even for as short as a couple of hours will allow the process of ovulation to begin.

Montagu suggests (page 51) that "the massive contractions of the uterus upon the body of the fetus"provides "insurance in the human species" that appropriate cutaneous stimulation of the fetal body will be performed in preparation for its emergence into the external world upon birth. Lacking this insurance, a woman uninitiated into the process of child-rearing would likely lose her baby. He explains what is happening during the passage through the contracting uterus.

[page 54] Contraction of the uterus upon the body of the fetus stimulates the peripheral sensory nerves in the skin. The nervous impulses thus initiated are conducted to the central nervous system where, at the proper levels, they are mediated through the vegetative (autonomic) nervous system to the various organs which they innervate. When the skin has not been adequately stimulated, the peripheral and autonomic nervous systems are also inadequately stimulated, and a failure of activation occurs in the principal organ systems.

This causes one to wonder if any study of SID (Sudden Infant Death) Syndrome babies in relation to amount of time spent in passage through the womb, and especially in relation to C-Section births.

Nowhere is the significance of skin more dramatic than the hearty slap on the buttocks of a newborn baby to get it to take its first breath and begin its normal breathing activity. Montagu reasoned that "subjecting a baby to immersion, alternately, in hot and cold baths" would also be efficacious in getting a baby to begin breathing.

[page 54, 55] Upon inquiry I found that this was, indeed, an old-established practice. In such cases it would seem reasonable to assume that it was the cutaneous stimulation which activates the autonomic nervous system, with the autonomic nervous system acting in turn upon the respiratory centers and viscera. The effect of a sudden cold shower upon respiration is well-known, and is indicative of a similar series of events.

In this next passage Montagu provides evidence for what happens to children who are delivered by C-Section surgeries or born pre-maturely for any reason. Premature babies will naturally be smaller in size and their passage through the uterus would likely be quicker. The key is the reduction of cutaneous stimulation prior to entering the external world.

[page 55] One of the things we can do is to inquire into what happens when there is inadequate cutaneous stimulation of the fetus, as in the case of precipitately born children. This often occurs in prematurity, and also in the case of many caesarian-delivered infants. In such cases what we should expect to find, according to our theory, would be disturbances in the gastrointestinal, genitourinary, and respiratory functions. Investigations made without any knowledge of or reference to our theory, but which are directly relevant to it, substantially support the theory. For example, Dr. C. M. Drillien studied the records of many thousands of prematures and found that during the early years of postnatal life they exhibited a significantly higher incidence of nasopharyngeal and respiratory disorders and diseases than normally born children. This difference was especially marked during the first year.

Another study of nursery school and kindergarten age children showed the prematurely born to have short attention span, to be "highly emotional, jumpy, anxious, and usually shy." (page 56) Comparative studies of caesarian-delivered babies and vaginally-delivered ones showed that the vaginally-delivered babies were "more active" and vocalizations and avoidance responses were about three times as frequent.

[page 57] Quite possible, had the caesarian-delivered babies been given an adequate amount of caressing for some days after they were born, a significant change might have been observed in their behavioral and physical development.

Is there evidence for effects in the newborn baby due to the absence of labor? Yes. Note that some caesarian-deliveries occur after the onset of labor or labor is artificially induced prior to the surgery.

[page 58] Normally, when a small amount of glucagon, a substance thought to be secreted by the pancreas, is introduced into the digestive system, the system responds by producing sugar. In caesarian-delivered infants the amount of sugar produced in response to this glucagon factor was much less than vaginally delivered infants, in the absence of labor. If, however, labor had occurred before caesarian delivery this difference was obliterated. The basic importance of labor in the preparation of the infant for postnatal functioning is thus strikingly confirmed.

Another benefit to the mother comes from allowing the baby in the first twenty-four hours after birth to lie by her side. Her uterus will be stimulated to contract. Montagu suggests that the baby be placed immediately "to nurse at the mother's breast, even before the cord is clamped, if the cord is long enough." The benefits are pervasive and salubrious to the mother and to the newborn baby.

[page 68, 70] By suckling at the breast the baby sets up changes in the mother: its suckling increases the secretion of oxytocin from the pituitary gland, producing massive contractions of the uterus, with the consequence that: (1) the uterine muscle fibers contract upon the uterine vessels; (2) the uterine vessels undergo constriction at the same time; (3) the uterus begins to undergo diminution in size; (4) the placenta becomes detached from the uterine wall, and (5) is ejected by the contracting expulsive uterus. . . . At the same time, at the breast the baby is ingesting the valuable colostrum, the best of all substances it could possibly imbibe. The colostrum lasts only two days and, among other things, acts as a laxative; it is the only substance that can effectively clean out the meconium in the baby's gastrointestinal tract. Colostrum constitutes the most powerful insurance against the baby's development of diarrhea. Colostrum is richer than true milk in lactoglobulin, which carries the factors that immunize a baby against a number of diseases. . . . Colostrum encourages the growth of desirable bacteria and discourages the growth of undesirable bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract of the newborn.

How can a substance act both as a laxative and a deterrent to diarrhea? Colostrum does it by encouraging the growth of desirable bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract to keep the bowels solid while also acting as a lubricant laxative.

One pediatrician, Truby King, in New Zealand, Montagu reports, spoke to a merchant dealing in wool and hides about the advantages of breastfeeding, and received this terse reply, "Why, I can tell you how your boots were fed!" Asked what he meant, he replied:

[page 75] "In the trade we know the highest grade of calf-skins as Paris Calf. That is because calves reared on their mother's milk to provide the finest veal for Paris, have also incidentally set the standard for the whole world as to what is best in the way of calf-skin for tanning."

Asked about the other kind of calf-skin, he said, "Oh, you mean the bucket-feds." How many more bucket-fed children are we raising in the world today as a result of the fad of formula-fed babies who are the human equivalent of the bucket-fed calves whose hide is "patchy, harsh, dry, and with a dead feeling." (Page 75)

On pages 82 through 84, Montagu details the disease known as maramus or infantile atrophy or debility. In some foundling homes, the death rate to maramus approached 100 percent for infants under a year of age. But the disease also was common in the best homes while being rare in poor homes lacking hygienic conditions. The difference, it was learned eventually, is that the disease came from a lack of being handled, carried, caressed, cooed to, and cuddled at least once a day, especially if the baby wasn't breast-fed.

On pages 86 and 87 Montagu relays the story about Frederick the Great who wished to discover what language a child would speak naturally if it were not taught its native tongue. The hundred or so babies in the experiment were fed, cleaned, and allowed no physical contact otherwise and were never talked to lest they be influenced to learn one language artificially. Frederick the Great never got an answer to his question because all the babies died. We know now it was from lack of human and motherly contact that they died.

In spite of all the functions the skin performs for our bodies, the skin is rarely busy. This was pointed out by Gilmer and Gregg of the Carnegie Institute of Technology who said this, "enables it to learn, to become habituated to codes that cannot be interfered with under any conditions." Our skin is always at work, and we are rarely aware of all the information it is processing for us. We turn because we sense someone behind us even though we hear not a sound. Our skin is sensitive on the back of our neck to temperature changes of a millionth of a degree by some estimates.

Even diaper rash can be seen as a boon for a child who is otherwise deprived of cutaneous stimulation. If the child is ignored for too long, the diaper rash will arise and cause intense pain and crying which will bring its mother or father to change the diaper and apply some soothing A&D Ointment or other emolient to its reddened posterior. The baby has had its skin stimulated and it can rest for another day. (Page 195)

In Chapter Six on Growth and Development, we learn about the origin of many adult problems in the lack of proper stimulation by their parents during their early years.

[page 206] The fundamental trauma of the schizoid personality, Lowen states, is the absence of pleasurable physical intimacy between mother and child. "The lack of erotic body contact is experienced by the child as abandonment. If the child's demands for this contact are not met with a warm response, it will grow up with the feeling that no one cares." In order to cut off unpleasant feelings and sensations, the child will hold his breath, suck in his belly, and immobilize the diaphragm. He will lie very still to avoid being afraid. In short, he will "deaden" his body in order not to feel pain, and by these means abandon reality. By such dissociation, especially when fear of the body becomes unendurably terrifying, the ego dissociates from the body, completely splitting the personality into two contradictory identities. One of these identities is based on the body, the other is based on the ego image.

It may be for skin diseases in a child that the beneficial purpose of the disease is to force the mother into cutaneous stimulation of the child's skin. One doctor made such a test and his results confirmed the thesis.

[page 207] In the matter of allergic disorders, Dr. Maurice J. Rosenthal made a direct test of the "thesis that eczema arises in certain predisposed infants because they fail to obtain from their mother or mother-substitute adequate physical soothing contact (caressing and cuddling)." Towards this end he investigated twenty-five mothers with children under two years of age suffering from eczema, and found that, indeed, the hypothesis he set out to test was abundantly confirmed. The majority of the infants had mothers who had failed to give them an adequate amount of cutaneous contact.

There is a matter of distance that relates to certain feelings which arise between people in interaction with each. One keeps one's distance when one is laughing and enjoying some comic moment, but during moments of sadness and tragedy, one moves close to the other person and touching is appropriate. Theater and film actors, who must provide a verisimilitude of real life, are taught these things. Comedic gestures are vertical movements and tragedic ones are horizontal.

[page 209, 210] In the matter of distance, it is of interest that in the theater certain directors tell their actors not to touch each other when playing comedy, but certainly not to refrain from doing so when playing tragedy. It is like the difference between extraversion and introversion. In comedy distance is required, noninvolvement, hence one refrains from touching. In tragedy it is the very reverse, involvement is what must be communicated, hence touching is encouraged. Again, gestures may be vertical in comedy, but they should be horizontal in tragedy. In comedy such vertical gestures are or tend to be manic, in tragedy horizontal gestures tend to suggest sympathy, embrace. Thus, Helen Hayes has said, "In comedy I have found that I must keep myself up, arms must be held higher, gestures must be of an upward nature. In tragedy just the reverse."

We have many words in our language which are based on cutaneous stimulation. The word "tact" is one — it means to "touch lightly" or with grace or finesse. One who has natural tact was touched lightly as a child and one who was not will be called tactless or said to have a "heavy touch." (Page 218)

The skin is a natural clotting agent is another insight I gained from Montagu. On page 219, he writes, "For example, contact of human plasma or whole blood with the skin accelerates clotting time. If the skin is washed with alcohol the clotting time is prolonged."

Montagu cites an experiment which evinced that "weeping ... also finds expression ... in the skin." The lack of weeping through one's eyes, for whatever reason, may show up in adults as scalp flaking, for example. Thus we can understand the origin of the stereotype of the "dandruffy nerd."

[page 278, 279] . . . the male of the English-speaking world who is everywhere taught that "a little man" doesn't cry, having repeatedly been caused to repress his desire to weep until he has become incapable of weeping from his lacrimal glands, often begins, in later life, to weep through his skin or his gastrointestinal tract. It is now well established that in a large proportion of cases of atropic dermatitis there is associated with a strong but inhibited desire to weep.

Within the covers of this book, one can find a treasure trove of information about the importance of the skin, how it is important while in the womb, during breast-feeding, during early maturation, and how the lack of touching can lead to diverse problems in growth and development. Thus we might give ourselves a hug and congratulate ourselves on having the world's greatest skin covering our body right now. Do that and you will feel the human significance of touching.

---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. You can view the beautiful butterfly photos with the text by ClickingHere or going to this webpage

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.


Footnote 2. Childbirth was a natural occurrence that among native American women was commonly done in a field which they were hoeing, perhaps, and they would pick up the baby, place it on their backs in a pouch, and continue hoeing.

Return to text directly before Footnote 2.


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