3 years ago

Exploring Ideas about Isotopic Variation in Breastfeeding and Weaning within and between Populations: Case Studies from the American Midcontinent

Mark R. Schurr


Infant feeding practices are partially constrained by the biological demands of infants and mothers, but vary within those constraints based on factors such as subsistence practices, health, class and ethnic variations, and the presence or absence of foods that can be substituted for breastmilk. Over the past 20 years, nitrogen stable isotope ratios have been used to explore infant feeding practices in past populations. Recent studies have moved from normative approaches primarily focused on weaning time to examinations of intra‐population variation. Juvenile and adult stable nitrogen isotope ratios from five sites in the midcontinental USA spanning almost 5,000 years provide an opportunity to examine the relationships between subsistence practices and social organization to juvenile diets reflected in nitrogen and carbon stable isotope ratios, and how interpretations of juvenile isotopic variability have changed over time. Infant feeding practices were variable in all populations and between roughly contemporary groups with similar ways of life. As reported before, no change in weaning time was seen with the appearance of food production from Late Archaic hunter‐gatherers (Indian Knoll and Carlston Annis sites) to maize agriculturalists (Angel and Tinsley Hill sites), but carbon stable‐isotope ratios show differences in childhood diet and the consumption of supplemental foods by prehistoric maize agriculturalists. Variability at four prehistoric sites was much less than that seen in an early nineteenth century cemetery (Old Frankfort cemetery). While many juveniles at Old Frankfort followed a trajectory of breastfeeding and weaning similar to that seen at the prehistoric sites, there was an unusually large amount of variation in juvenile and adult diets at Old Frankfort Cemetery. Additional studies on early industrial multi‐ethnic frontier populations are needed to better understand the significance of the variation in this type of population.

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