Raising girls and boys in early China

Analysing 2500-year-old teeth has thrown open a window onto life and gender inequality during Bronze Age China.

The University of Otago-led research has cast light on breastfeeding, weaning, evolving diets and the difference between what girls and boys were eating, lead researcher Dr. Melanie Miller, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Otago’s Department of Anatomy, says.

The teeth come from the Central Plains of China and date from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, between 771 and 221 BC. Despite their extreme antiquity (they are as old as Athens’ Parthenon and the Old Testament sacking of Jerusalem’s First Temple) the teeth’s dentin—the bony tissue forming the bulk of our teeth’s structure—was full of information.

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Using , researchers were able to show the types and amounts of various elements in the dentin, including carbon and nitrogen, unlocking information about the individuals’ life and diet. That enabled a picture to be drawn of a changing society, Dr. Miller says.

“We already knew this [Eastern Zhou Dynasty] showed increasing inequality between men and women. What we were able to find is that these differences were even evident in what people ate and how they cared for their children, such as gender differences in how long babies were weaned and then the foods they were fed as children.”

The analysis of 23 individuals from two different archaeological sites shows children were breastfed until they were between 2.5 and four years old, with weaning onto solids—consisting mostly of wheat and soybean—occurring slightly earlier in females than in males.

“For the two communities we studied, was an integral aspect of identity, and it was a medium of differentiation between females and males. We found dietary differences between the sexes began in and continued over the lifetime.

“That means the foods people ate on a regular basis were slightly different if they were a boy or girl, and then a man or a woman.”

Males continued to eat more of the traditional crop, millet, while females consumed more of the “new” foods such as wheat and soy, Dr. Miller says. That wheat and soy foods were important components of childhood diets suggests they were incorporated into local culinary practices as weaning foods.

The Eastern Zhou Dynasty is a very important period of Chinese history and Chinese cultural change; it is the time of Confucius and other notable intellectuals, Dr. Miller says.

“And we are seeing some of the earliest forms of social inequality between men and women emerge during this time, and these dietary results underscore how the daily lives of women and men were increasingly differentiated, even in daily practices such as what foods a person ate.”

Dr. Miller says the chemical techniques used in this type of bioarchaeology are making it possible to study ancient human dietary practices over those peoples’ lifetimes.

“With this approach we’re getting personalised glimpses into the lives of ancient people. That can reveal significant aspects of their life experiences, including things like gender divisions and social inequality.”

More information: Melanie J. Miller et al. Raising girls and boys in early China: Stable isotope data reveal sex differences in weaning and childhood diets during the eastern Zhou era, American Journal of Physical Anthropology (2020). DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.24033



Growing up different in Neolithic China – a case of dwarfism – Forbes article by Kristina Killgrove

“What we can say is that this individual would have likely had extra care needs where support from other community members was needed,” they write, “possibly both as the result of physical and/or mental disability, and that these would have presented early in life or were apparent at birth.”

Forbes piece by Kristina Killgrove


Guangia Figure 4 updated


Early Europeans bottle-fed babies with animal milk

Published in Nature News and Views

The foods used to supplement or replace breast milk in infants’ diets in prehistoric times aren’t fully understood. The finding that ancient feeding vessels from Europe had residues of animal milk offers a clue.

Small pottery vessels, sometimes with animal-like forms (Fig. 1), containing a spout through which liquid could be poured, have been found at prehistoric archaeological sites in Europe. One idea put forward is that they were used as feeding vessels for sick adults and the elderly. However, writing in Nature, Dunne et al.1 describe an analysis of spouted vessels found in ancient graves of infants in Germany that indicates that these artefacts contained animal milk. This evidence suggests that such vessels were used to feed animal milk to children, providing crucial insight into the diet of developing infants in prehistoric human populations.

Selection of Late Bronze/Early Iron Age feeding vessels.

Figure 1 | Ancient pottery vessels. Vessels with a spout for pouring liquid and of a size suitable for feeding babies have been found at archaeological sites. The earliest examples of such vessels5 have been dated to around 5500–4800 bc, but whether these were used to feed infants is unknown. Two vessels are shown of this size and shape from the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age (vessels dated between 1200 and 800 bc). The vessel on the left, from Vösendorf, Austria, is approximately 90 millimetres high. The vessel on the right, from Statzendorf, Austria, is about 85 mm high. Dunne and colleagues’ analysis1 of organic residues found in ancient spouted vessels (not those pictured) sheds light on how early populations might have fed young infants. Credit: Katharina Rebay-Salisbury

For years, many archaeologists ignored children when studying ancient populations, but researchers now increasingly recognize the importance of children when trying to understand the factors affecting earlier societies2,3. One such example concerns a major societal turning point in human prehistory, known as the Neolithic demographic transition, when there is evidence of a substantial increase in fertility and a growth in the number of individuals in human populations compared with that of earlier societies4.

The Neolithic period in Europe began roughly around 7000 bc. During the Neolithic, some humans began to move away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle towards one that depended on crops and domesticated animals. How did this transition to agriculture lead to a baby boom? An exploration of the approaches used to feed infants might provide some of the evidence needed to answer this question.

Some of the earliest known pottery vessels of a suitable size and shape for use in feeding infants are from the Neolithic period. These artefacts, discovered in Germany, have been dated5 to between 5500 and 4800 bc. It has been suggested6 that during the Neolithic, weaning — when an infant’s diet changes from breast milk to other foods — occurred earlier in an infant’s life than was previously the case. This earlier weaning might have been accomplished by using animal milk and plant sources of carbohydrates. It has been argued that such early weaning could have helped to counteract the period of infertility that can occur while a mother is breastfeeding7, and thus might have led to the increase in fertility and population size during the Neolithic demographic transition. In the archaeological record, this fertility increase is evidenced, somewhat counter-intuitively, by an increase in the number of infants found at burial sites — if more babies are born in a population, then more babies will also die, and be buried8.

Dunne and colleagues examined ceramic vessels with spouts found in children’s graves from burial sites in Bavaria, Germany. One vessel came from a burial site dated to around 1200–800 bc (during the late Bronze Age), and two vessels came from a burial site from around 800–450 bc (during the early Iron Age).

The authors analysed traces of ancient food in these vessels to determine the origin of these residues, by assessing specific characteristics of fatty-acid molecules. Dunne et al. used isotope analysis to study the chemistry of specific compounds in the vessels, and also obtained molecular ‘fingerprints’ of the ancient lipids. They then compared this information with the fingerprints of known reference compounds. This evidence indicates that the vessels contained fatty acids from dairy products, probably milk, that came from domestic ruminant animals. The specific type of animal that provided this milk was not identified.

It is thought that humans first started drinking animal milk in Europe. A study9 published this year of proteins captured in dental plaque provides direct evidence that adults drank animal milk during the Neolithic period in Europe, with the earliest dates for this occurring around 6,000 years ago. Now Dunne et al. present the earliest known evidence of animal milk in small bottles for infants.

The exploration of infant feeding provides information about how babies have been cared for and how social attitudes towards infant feeding have changed over time10. Dunne and colleagues’ investigation of infant feeding during the Neolithic provides insight into cultural beliefs related to the body, infancy and motherhood. Furthermore, the type of food infants are fed, and when during their development they are given food in addition to breast milk, has a strong relationship to infant health and survival11.

Human breast milk is a perfect baby food, containing carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, digestive enzymes and hormones12. It provides protection from infection because it contains numerous types of immune cell13,14. Some of the sugars it contains, although not digested by babies, support certain communities of gut microorganisms , which prevent disease-causing microbes from establishing a presence in the body14. By contrast, animal-milk products do not provide a complete nutritional source for infants. And the use of hard-to-clean bottles for animal milk poses a risk of exposure to life-threatening infections such as gastroenteritis. The introduction of milk in bottles during the Neolithic, therefore, might have led to a deterioration in the health of some infants.

Further research on the remains of people in European prehistoric cemetery sites should be undertaken to explore the effects of the introduction of animal milk as an infant food. This could be assessed by analysing the rate of infant and child mortality, and determining whether any signs of nutritional or infectious disease are present when studying the bones and teeth in infant remains. Furthermore, the age at which a child was weaned can be investigated using techniques that analyse teeth15, and gathering such data can uncover the variation in weaning approaches that existed in a population16. Such knowledge, together with evidence of disease for the individual being studied, might help to provide a greater understanding of the significance of the introduction of animal milk for the lives of ancient children.


  1. Dunne, J. et al. Nature https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1572-x (2019).
  2. Lillehammer, G. in The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Childhood (eds Crawford, S., Hadley, D. & Shepherd, G.) 38–51 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2018).
  3. Halcrow, S. & Tayles, N. in Social Bioarchaeology (eds Agarwal, S. & Glencross, B.) 333–360 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).
  4. Bocquet-Appel, J. P. Science 333, 560–561 (2011).
  5. Meller, H. E. Bronzerausch: Spätneolithikum und Frühbronzezeit. Begleithefte zur Dauerausstellung 4 (State Museum of Prehistory Halle, 2011).
  6. Bocquet-Appel, J.-P. Curr. Anthropol. 43, 637–650 (2002).
  7. Chao, S. Clin. Perinatol. 14, 39–50 (1987).
  8. Jackes, M. in Strength in Diversity: A Reader in Physical Anthropology (eds Herring, A. & Chan, L.) 155–185 (Canadian Scholars, 1994).
  9. Charlton, S. et al. Archaeol. Anthropol. Sci. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-019-00911-7 (2019).
  10. Tomori, C., Palmquist, A. E. L. & Quinn, E. A. in Breastfeeding: New Anthropological Approaches (eds Tomori, C., Palmquist, A. E. L. & Quinn, E. A.) Ch. 1, 1–25 (Routledge, 2017).
  11. Halcrow, S. E. et al. in Breastfeeding: New Anthropological Approaches (eds Tomori, C., Palmquist, A. E. L. & Quinn, E. A.) Ch. 11, 155–169 (Routledge, 2017).
  12. Lessen, R. & Kavanagh, K. J. Acad. Nutr. Diet. 115, 444–449 (2015).
  13. Martin, C. R., Ling, P.-R. & Blackburn, G. L. Nutrients 8, 279 (2016).
  14. Allens-Blevins, C. R., Sela, D. A. & Hinde, K. Evol. Med. Public Health 2015, 106–121 (2015).
  15. Beaumont, J., Gledhill, A., Lee-Thorp, J. & Montgomery, J. Archaeometry 55, 277–295 (2013).
  16. King, C. L. et al. Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. 28, 599–612 (2018)



Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past conference programme out now — sscip

We are delighted to announce the SSCIP 2019 Conference Programme hosted by the University of Sheffield. Also, for those of you who are yet to register, please note that registration is still open and will remain open until the 30th of September 2019. Please find the link for registration below. https://onlineshop.shef.ac.uk/conferences-and-events/faculty-of-arts-and-humanities/archaeology/rebels-without-a-cause-accessing-and-exploring-adolescentsadolescence-in-the-past If anyone has any […]

via Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past conference programme out now — sscip

Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past sponsored session at the 84th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology

Post by Kirsty Squires and Esme Hookway Another year, another Society for American Archaeology (SAA) conference. This year the conference took place between 10th-14th April 2019 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past (SSCIP) sponsored the “Health and Welfare of Children in the Past” session, organised by Esme […]

via SSCIP sponsored session at the 84th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology — sscip

Childhood in the Past, volume 12 OUT NOW


Here is the editorial by Eileen Murphy for the most recent volume of CiP. Enjoy!

Welcome to the spring issue of Volume twelve of Childhood in the Past, the journal of the Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past (SSCIP). The issue starts with a welcome address by newly elected SSCIP President, Dr Katie Hemer. While it was sad to see our former president, Dr Sally Crawford, end her term of office she will still be very much involved in SSCIP in her new role as a vice-president. I have no doubt Katie will be an excellent president and you can read about some of her ideas in her address.

SSCIP was as busy as ever in 2018. SSCIP Committee Member, Esme Hookaway of Staffordshire University, and Marion Shiner of the University of Sheffield, ran a SSCIP stall for the second year running at the Big Biology…

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Registration NOW OPEN – Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past Conference


Rebels Without a Cause? Accessing and Exploring Adolescents/Adolescence in the Past

12th Annual Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past Conference

Location: University of Sheffield, Sheffield, England, U.K

Dates:  30th October – 1st November 2019
Organisers: Dr Katie Hemer, Dr Sophie Newman

Host Department: Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield

The 2019 SSCIP Conference seeks to explore the many facets of adolescence, and how scholars from diverse fields of research offer nuanced insight into the lives of those occupying this unique stage in the life course in the past. Papers are sought from researchers working on adolescence across the Humanities and Social Sciences (e.g. Archaeology, Art History, Anthropology, History, English literature etc.). This interdisciplinary conference is supported by the Sheffield Centre for the Archaeology of Childhood


Confirmed keynote speakers: Prof. Jane Eva Baxter (DePaul University, USA) and Dr Mary Lewis (University…

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