Neanderthals breastfed their children in line with modern pediatric recommendations on when to supplement mother’s milk with other food, scientists said.
Research based on the fossilized enamel of a single Neanderthal child found that the mother breastfed exclusively for seven months and continued nursing for another seven months while adding other foods. She then stopped breastfeeding when the baby was 14 months old, earlier than most humans, according to the study published yesterday in the journal Nature.
While modern humans can wean their children as early as a year without serious health effects, most nurse longer, averaging 2.3 years to 2.6 years of breastfeeding, the study’s authors wrote. The Neanderthals’ early weaning practice may have allowed shorter periods between pregnancy that can affect “population growth, evolution and success,” the authors wrote.
“Weaning is critical to developmental and reproductive rates; early weaning can have detrimental health effects but enables shorter inter-birth intervals,” according to the study, which was led by Manish Arora, a senior lecturer in dentistry at the University of Sydney.
In the study released yesterday, the authors said the tooth finding isn’t representative of the general Neanderthal childhood because the weaning was early and abrupt. Other reports have suggested the lifespan of Neanderthals was probably the same as that of humans. Neanderthals became extinct about 30,000 years ago.
The scientists were able to determine the Neanderthal breastfeeding time frame by looking at the levels of a chemical element, barium, in the tooth enamel of a child’s molar. Though this was only one Neanderthal fossil specimen, tests using barium dating in other teeth, including those of human babies and macaques, an Old World monkey, appeared to corroborate the technique.
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