Aztec Obstetrics

Date: 1557
Owner: University of New Mexico Press
Source Type: Images


These illustrations from the Florentine Codex show several of the tasks of Aztec midwives, specialists who cared for pregnant women, delivered babies, and provided medical care for infants. Midwives were--and continue to be--some of the most important and competent medical practitioners among American indigenous groups. Midwives were responsible for both obstetrics (caring for a pregnant mother) and the birthing process, and employed herbs and hands-on remedies to do as much as possible to ensure the health of both mother and newborn.

As obstetricians, midwives performed both physical and spiritual services for the expectant mother. Prayers, chants, and culture-specific injunctions (such as orders to avoid looking at red objects) were performed in conjunction with steam baths and massages, including an external version (the process of rotating a fetus in utero) if she thought it would be a breach birth (Seggiaro, 1977). If the birth itself (performed in a squatting stance or with the mother kneeling) proved too slow, Aztec midwives administered an herb to incite contractions, montanoa tomentosa (or 'woman's medicine'). Modern tests on animals with this drug have shown that it does indeed speed labor (Ortiz de Montellano, 1990).

 Midwives continue to oversee births among rural Indian groups in Latin America and--like herbalists--are beginning to work together with practitioners of allopathic medicine in order to provide primary care at the village level. Modernizers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries tried to suppress these female medical professionals as backward witches, yet the crucial nature of their work, the lack of medical faciliities in many rural areas, local women's networks and even, at times, the State have kept them in prominence and allowed the perpetuation of their ancient skills.


Ortiz de Montellano, Bernardo R. Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Seggiaro, Luis A. Medicina Indigena de America. Buenos Aires: Editorial Universitaria de Buenos Aires, 1969.