Researchers analysed the tooth of a 10-12 year-old child that lived in a cave in Belgium around 100,000 years ago
According to research published in May 2013,1 Neanderthal mothers breastfed their babies for over a year. Chemical analysis of a juvenile’s tooth revealed it was reared on mother’s milk for seven months, with suckling continuing for the same period coupled with solid food.
Dr Manish Arora and colleagues at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York were able to discover the early life diet of a 10-12 year-old child that lived in a cave in Belgium around 100,000 years ago by looking at differences in the distribution of barium in teeth enamel.
Barium is calcium’s cousin and over the years it accumulates in our bones. When a mother begins nursing some of the barium goes into her breastmilk, and eventually into her babies’ teeth. The differences in distribution of barium in teeth enamel allowed the researchers to track the change from breastfeeding to plants and grains.
Later weaning can have health benefits while earlier weaning leads to shorter intervals between births, which influences population growth and evolution. The researchers said our understanding of the evolution of human weaning has been limited by a lack of reliable markers to indicate the timing and nature of dietary transitions. However, barium rises during breastfeeding and drops abruptly on weaning so barium distributions in tooth enamel accurately reflect dietary transitions from the introduction of mother’s milk through to feeding with other food sources, the team said.
The study of a molar tooth of the Neanderthal child uncovered barium levels indicating it was breastfed exclusively for seven months, followed by seven months of supplementation, after which breastfeeding was ceased abruptly at 1.2 years of age, with barium levels returning to baseline prenatal levels.
Neanderthals lived during the last Ice Age and would have had to have coped with extremely harsh environments. While blizzards raged outside, the parents would have to track down something to eat, prepare it and keep the fires going. Examination of Neanderthal burial sites and caves has led researchers to conclude they were not ‘savages’, but lived in small nuclear families which interacted with neighbouring groups. They took care of their elderly and sick, as well as their children, and grieved at the loss of an infant or elder by burying their dead. It is also believed they were able to produce speech and may even have been responsible for some of the most ancient cave art on the planet.
According to the study, ‘In the Scladina Neanderthal, the protracted weaning process typical in primates was interrupted by unknown cause(s), precipitating abrupt cessation of suckling. The period of exclusive breastfeeding in this Neanderthal is consistent with other hominoids; human hunter-gatherers and wild chimpanzees also begin to supplement milk with solid food by around 6 months of age. Humans and chimpanzees may wean offspring as early as 1.0 and 4.2 years, respectively, without serious health effects, but average 2.3-2.6 years and 5.3 years.’2