Placenta fun facts from cultures around the world!
While nonhuman primates usually consume the placenta, humans rarely do. In a survey of more than 300 cultural groups in the Human Relation Area Files (HRAF) and other sources, there seemed to be no evidence that eating the placenta was a normal part of the immediate postpartum period. However! The placenta, or parts of it, may be dried and retained for medicinal purposes (e.g., among Miao, Vietnamese, Burmese) or for use as an eye wash (e.g., among Siwans and Mixtecans). Among the Kol, a childless woman may eat some of the placenta in hopes that it will help her to bear a child. Occasionally, a Filipino midwife will add placenta blood to a rich porridge she feeds the mother after birth in the belief that it will help her regain her strength. Much more commonly found in ethnographic literature are prohibitions against placentophagy (consumption of placenta) - as among the Lepcha who believe that eating the placenta will cause skin eruptions.
Although placentas are not normally consumed by contemporary human beings, they are rarely ignored or treated as rubbish as in most of Western society. Of 200 cultures in the HRAF that specifically mention disposal of the placenta, only 7 report that it is thrown away without regard. By far the most common method of disposal is burial. The organ is recognized in most cultures as having spiritual, emotional, or ritual significance.
The disposal of the placenta is believed by many to affect a child’s later life.
- In Okinawa, children are supposed to laugh as the placenta is buried so that the infant will be happy.
- The placenta is well washed by the Thai and placed in a pot with salt so that the baby will not get pimples.
- According to the Trobrianders, burying the placenta in the garden ensures that the child will be a good gardener.
- In Iran, if a placenta is put in a mouse hole the child will be smart.
- In parts of Mexico, placing the placenta in a tree will make the child able to climb trees.
- If the Nootka want a child to be a good dancer, they sprinkle the placenta with down and spin on top of it four times.
The disposition of the placenta may also reflect sex roles.
- In the Marshall Islands, a boy’s placenta is thrown into the sea so that he will be a good fisherman, and a girl’s placenta is hung in a pandanus tress so that she will be a good weaver.
- The Aymara bury the placenta with miniature farm implements for a boy and cooking utensils for a girl.
In some cultures, the disposal of the placenta is tied to future childbearing by the mother.
- The Pawnee midwife wraps the placenta in leather and grass and hangs it in a tree with requests that the next birth to that woman be easy.
- The Tzeltal will bury the placenta deeply if they do not want more children.
- The Cherokee father, charged with burying the placenta, crosses one, two, or three mountain ridges in doing so, depending on the number of years he wants to pass before the next child is born.
A belief in a supernatural or otherwise special relationship between an infant and its placenta is common.
- The Yoruba believe that the child is supernaturally tied to the placenta and that he or she will always look back toward the father’s house where it is buried.
- This belief is so strong among the Mam that if a birth occurs away from home, the placenta must be cooked until it is dry so that it can be brought back and buried in the home.
- Upon death, according to Egyptian mythology, a person’s soul returns to his ka, a double or twin personality; some scholars believe that the ka is actually the placenta.
One reason for concern about the placenta in several cultures is ascription of “personess” to it.
- In Tibet, the placenta is called dartsendo or “birth friend”. Terms with similar meaning are used among the Kurd and Trukese.
- The Thai believe that it is part of the child and must be disposed of quickly so that it will not fall into the hands of someone who wants to do evil to the child.
- The placenta is considered to be the younger sibling of the child in cultures of Malaysia, Jordan, and Java.
- Among the Fellahin and Ganda, it is called by a term that means “second child”.
In summary, placentas are cool - pass it on!