BBC health recently entertained me with the headline ‘Eating your placenta does not bring health benefits’. I was glad to hear that. Although I never considered eating my placentas, I felt a little cheated after my own births because I never even saw them. My first birth was too chaotic, and by the time I asked at my second birth, my midwife had already disposed of it in the hospital waste. I am not sure if I will ever get another chance to investigate.
The placenta is an amazing organ. Its name derives from the Latin word for ‘cake’. Via the umbilical cord, it connects the developing fetus to the uterine wall and ensures oxygen supply, nutrition and waste disposal, whilst fighting infections and producing pregnancy hormones. On average 22 cm long and c. 2.5 cm thick, it weighs about 500 g. Having been the lifeline of the fetus for months, it is expelled from the mother’s body within 15–30 minutes of birth, after which the umbilical cord is typically cut und the focus is on the baby, not the after-birth. It has been shown, however, that delaying cutting the umbilical cord brings health benefits for the baby (e.g. better iron levels).
What did prehistoric people do with the afterbirth? Birth results in a baby, a lot of bodily fluids and the placenta. Is there any evidence for prehistoric placentophagy?
A large number of mammals eat the afterbirth, including herbivores that normally do not eat meat. It is thought that the primary reason is to hide traces of childbirth from predators, with nutritional benefits being secondary (Kristal 1980). This includes primate, although interestingly, our closest relatives, gorillas and chimpanzees ate their placentas only in about half of the observed births. A cross-cultural survey of over 300 contemporary human groups via the Human Relations Area Files concluded that placentophagy is not a normal part of human behaviour, although in some areas of south-east Asia, parts of the placenta are dried and used as medicine (Trevathan 2011: 104-106).
Much more common is a respectful treatment of the after-birth, which often includes burying, to ensure the health and well-being of mother and child and to prevent witchcraft with body parts. The oldest evidence of burying the placenta dates to 3100 BC Egypt, where the ritual is depicted on a make-up kit in the grave of Pharaoh Narmer of the First Dynasty (Kuntner 2004).
In Central Europe, buried pots of the 14th to 19th century are common archaeological finds in the cellars of houses or yards of farms. With scientific methods, it is now possible to detect the pregnancy hormone estradiol and prove that they had been used to dispose of the placenta after birth (Ade 2011). Stories and beliefs surrounding the disposal of the afterbirth vary cross-culturally, but nevertheless, it is most common to bury the placenta respectfully, with simple rituals. The symbolism of burying the placenta, akin to burying the dead, is evident. And this makes perfect sense – nowhere are life and death closer together than during birth.
Perhaps one day, busy hospital staff will volunteer to give women the choice of what to do with their placentas. I would have taken them home to have a good look with my dissecting instruments and a microscope 🙂
Ade, D., and B. Schmid. 2011. Wo weder Sonne noch Mond hinscheint. Der Brauch der Nachgeburtsbestattung Religiosität in Mittelalter und Neuzeit. Mitteilungen der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Archäologie des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit 23: 227-236.
Kristal, M. B. 1980. Placentophagia: A biobehavioral enigma (or De gustibus non disputandum est). Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 4(2): 141-150.
Kuntner, L. 2004. Zum Umgang mit der Nachgeburt: Plazentabestattung im Kulturvergleich. Curare 27(3): 279-293.
Trevathan, W. R. 2011. Human Birth: An Evolutionary Perspective. New York: Transaction Publishers.