Bringing Breastfeeding from the Past into the Present – by guest blogger Dr. Charlotte King

This month, Anthrolactology welcomes Dr. Charlotte King. Dr. King is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Her research focuses on the emergence of agricultural societies and the way in which this transition has shaped human culture and biology. She uses chemical analysis of human tissues to understand diet and human mobility in the past, as well as processes in the burial environment which might have impacted upon bone composition.

The importance of infant-feeding practices in modern societies has long been noted by clinical professionals and anthropologists, but people who study the human past (like bioarchaeologists) are also interested in breastfeeding and weaning. The knock-on effects of changes to breastfeeding and weaning practices for maternal and infant health, and mortality rates mean that they can have important implications for societies. They can contribute to population growth or increases in infant and maternal mortality. In a sense, breastfeeding decisions have the potential to change the course of history! Bioarchaeologists can look at changes to breastfeeding and weaning in past societies as evidence for the presence of resources that allow earlier complementary feeding, changes to cultural norms, or stressors causing change to maternal behaviour. Plus, looking at breastfeeding in the past gives an evolutionary context for modern-day practices, meaning we can see how these behaviours might have developed and what they might have allowed us to adapt to.

But how can we look at decisions surrounding breastfeeding and weaning in the past when, even today, the multitude of environmental and cultural factors contributing to a mother’s decisions are difficult to disentangle?

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Just some of the factors feeding into mothers’ decisions surrounding breastfeeding and weaning.

Looking at breastfeeding and weaning in the past is complicated. Often bioarchaeologists have glossed over the nuances of this important life-history event in favour of creating big, population-scale stories of change. There has been a tendency to label any evidence for early life stress in skeletal remains as “weaning related”, without stopping to consider the complex and individual nature of breastfeeding and weaning practices. But the tide is beginning to turn, and bioarchaeologists are becoming more and more informed by modern research into breastfeeding and weaning, and aware of the need to consider both biological and cultural factors in our interpretations. Technological advances are giving us new methods with which we can study infant-feeding practices and their effects. We can now, for example, look at changes in the chemistry of human dental remains to look at individual weaning histories, and consider variation within populations as well as what a people group might be doing on the whole.

In our chapter in Breastfeeding: new anthropological approaches (Halcrow, King et al., 2018), we delve into some of the bioarchaeological methods used to look at breastfeeding and weaning practices using a case study from our work. We showcase how new chemical techniques are beginning to shed light on factors affecting early life experience, such as maternal stress transfer during gestation and periods of exclusive breastfeeding, and the resources available as complementary foods in the past. We also show how these chemical methods can be combined with pathological evidence from the bones themselves to interpret early-life stresses. Our current research focuses on childhood in the prehistoric Atacama Desert (modern-day northern Chile), a place where natural resource availability is low, and environmental factors are likely to have made life for mothers and their children extremely stressful.

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The Lluta river is one of the only freshwater sources in the northern Atacama Desert, life as a vulnerable infant in this context is likely to have been fraught with difficulty.

Here we’re interested in how the stresses of the natural environment and introduction of maize agriculture might have affected breastfeeding and weaning practices. We’re examining how mothers may have buffered their children against environmental instability by altering their breastfeeding practices, and how the stresses mothers experienced might manifest chemically in infants. The case-study we use from the pre-agricultural period illustrates how new techniques, and multi-disciplinary approaches to the study of infants and children in archaeological samples are allowing a more nuanced understanding of breastfeeding in the past.

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Page from Guaman Poma’s chronicles of the Inka state (Poma de Ayala, 1615). The Inka occupied the northern Atacama from 1450AD – 1600AD. This illustration details the process of maize cultivation, widely considered to have been a significant crop for complementary feeding.

For more on Dr. Charlotte King’s research, please check out her research page!

References:

Halcrow SE, King CL, Millard AR, Snoddy AME, Elliott GE, Buckley HR, . . . Arriaza BT. 2018. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings: Breastfeeding and weaning in the past. In Breastfeeding: new anthropological approaches. Tomori, C, Palmquist, A, & Quinn, EA (eds.). Routledge. New York; 195-214.

Poma de Ayala, G. 1615. El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno. Accessible through: http://www.kb.dk/permalink/2006/poma/info/en/frontpage.htm.

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