Why Data on Breastfeeding Habits of Humans is Important
In order for scientists to better understand primates, their early eating habits are vital to understand. Infant nursing habits are an integral part of gaining knowledge of primates, and more specifically, humans. It’s been hard for scientists to determine past fossils of humans breastfeeding habits, due to a lack of data regarding the biomarkers of breastfeeding duration in teeth. Recently, a study conducted by Harvard, to determine standard biomarkers of breastfeeding habits in teeth. The study has scientists playing tooth-fairy, in order to gain valuable information regarding ancient humans nursing habits, and potentially much more.
Conducting the Barium Level and Breastfeeding Studies
In order to establish the indicators of breastfeeding in teeth, scientists had to study the teeth of children, whose nursing habits had been monitored accurately. So this long-term study, adopted unusual, and long-term practices. To begin scientists carefully monitored a mother and child pairs nursing habits. They were able to determine barium levels, absorbed by the baby through the mother’s milk, at different levels according to when they stopped breastfeeding. So when a mother stopped breastfeeding, the barium ceased as well. This gave scientists a baseline to work with, when comparing the teeth with that of an ancient human.
After the breastfeeding data had been collected, scientists waited until the babies grew into children, and their baby teeth fell out. When the children placed their freshly departed tooth under the pillow, their parents collect their teeth, and shipped them off to the scientists. The children involved in the study, were paid a small fee for each tooth, making the scientists a sort-of, real-life tooth-fairy.
Scientists were able to determine the exact times the mothers had quit breastfeeding, and compare it to the dates the mother had given, due to the way teeth grow. Much like trees, teeth show rings of enamel, and other matter, that indicate the age of teeth. So using the data the women had given, versus the barium levels found present in the teeth. Once a baseline pattern for barium levels in nursing infants had been established, scientists were then able to compare it to humans from an earlier time.
Lead scientist Manish Arora, called upon a human evolution studies professor at Harvard, Tanya Smith, to find the right tooth to test. “It’s a first molar tooth from a Neanderthal from a site in Belgium called Scladina,” Smith said. The tooth was a perfect candidate to compare to the new data because it was over 100,000 years old, and nearly perfectly preserved.
By comparing the barium levels in the ancient tooth, to the recent data, scientists were able to determine when the “baby” molar had weaned off of breast-feeding. According to the barium levels found in the tooth, the child had weaned to a mix of solid food and breastmilk at about seven months, and stopped breast-feeding altogether at around fifteen months. The mothers in the study had mostly stopped closer to two years of age. Scientists were intrigued by the findings for a number of reasons.
Importance and Potential Impact of the Study and Data Collected
Humans are remarkable among primates for their early weaning from breast-feeding. Most primates breast-feed for three or more years, sometimes up to seven. One of the many things that distinguishes humans from other species of primates, is our short period of breast-feeding. Understanding the patterns of modern, and historical breast-feeding habits of human is massively helpful. The data collected by Arora and his team, will no doubt be of huge benefit to researchers attempting to determine breast-feeding habits of historical humans.
- Tracking Data Transitions During Infancy From Teeth
- Barium distributions in teeth reveal early-life dietary transitions in primates
- Scientific Tooth Fairies Investigate Neanderthal Breast-Feeding
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Emily Manke is a blogger out of the state of Oregon. She contributes to many different sites, including the blog for this Dentist in Gladstone, OR.