Day 284. Tooth fairy with a PhD

In May 2013 on May 23, 2013 at 9:02 pm

tooth fairy

One of the dilemmas of modern, westernised mothering is – assuming your mammary glands and child are compatible – how long one should breastfeed for.

Some say 4 months is enough, others recommend one year or even two. Some say even longer.

From an evolutionary perspective, it’d be kinda nice to know how long our neanderthal ancestors offered the breast to their cave-babies. Because the natural feeding behaviours of neanderthals evolved to match their biological needs, and vice versa, knowing the duration of breastfeeding in these early humans would be relevant to our health.

Now some tooth-stealing scientist guy has worked out how to answer this question.

As reported by NPR yesterday, Manish Arora (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York) and his colleagues studied milk teeth which had naturally fallen from the mouths of young children, and matched his analysis to their known duration of breastfeeding. Relying on the ring-like layered formation patterns of teeth, he discovered that levels of barium were high in layers laid down during breastfeeding, but dropped once weaning commenced.

The method was so good, he could then use it to work out the age at which breastfeeding stopped in teeth for which he had no social history.

Like a fossilised neanderthal tooth, for example.

Manish analysed the barium in a 100,000 year old perfectly preserved milk molar tooth found fossilised in Belgium.

As described by NPR, the results showed that

“this Neanderthal started weaning after about 7 months, and then transitioned to a mixed diet. At 15 months, the barium signal dropped abruptly, as if mother and child had been separated.”

The results were published in the journal Nature this week.

This sort of research makes my spine tingle. When I learn something new about our human ancestors, and see how similar they were to us – despite all our technology and clothing and isolated existences – it makes me feel connected to a broader humanity and a history of people.

And now I wonder what happened to that baby and its mother.

[image thanks to edenpictures on flickr]

  1. Tres cool study indeed.

  2. Just a quick correction regarding Manish’s affiliation (thanks to Toby Hughes comment on my Facebook page): he is now at the University of Sydney

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