• The “weanling’s dilemma” revisited: Evolving bodies of evidence and the problem of infant paleodietary interpretation

      Kendall, E.; Beaumont, Julia; Millard, A.M. (2021-08)
      Breastfeeding is known to be a powerful mediator of maternal and childhood health, with impacts throughout the lifecourse. Paleodietary studies of the past thirty years have accordingly taken an enduring interest in the health and diet of young children as a potential indicator of population fertility, subsistence, and mortality patterns. While progress has been made in recent decades towards acknowledging the agency of children, many paleodietary reconstructions have failed to incorporate developments in cognate disciplines revealing synergistic dynamics between maternal and offspring biology. Central to this understanding has been heavy reliance on the “weanling’s dilemma”, in which infants are thought to face a bleak choice between loss of immunity or malnutrition. Using a review of immunological and epidemiological evidence for the dynamic and supportive role that breastfeeding plays throughout the complementary feeding period, this paper offers context and nuance for understanding past feeding transitions. We suggest that future interpretative frameworks for infant paleodietary and bioarchaeological research should include a broad knowledge base that keeps pace with relevant developments outside of those disciplines.