Reconstruction of breastfeeding and weaning practices using stable isotope and trace element analyses: A review

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2015 Feb;156 Suppl 59:2-21. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.22657. Epub 2014 Nov 19.


Biogeochemical methods using stable isotopes and trace elements have been increasingly developed and applied to reconstruct modern and ancient breastfeeding and weaning practices of mammals, including humans, because they offer direct proxies for the dietary intake of subadults. Carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen isotopes have been used to evaluate breast milk lipid, protein, and water intake, respectively. Carbon and sulfur isotopes have been used to estimate the content of weaning foods. The elemental concentrations of Sr and Ba in subadult tissues differ because of the dietary change during the weaning process. For analyses, various tissues have been used, such as hair, nail, blood, and feces for modern mammals and bone and teeth for ancient ones. Of these, trace element analysis of tooth enamel offers a good opportunity for the reconstruction of breastfeeding and weaning practices of the more distant past at finer resolution, although further understanding of the metabolism of trace elements is necessary. There are various tissue- and element-specific advantages and disadvantages, and a combination of different proxies can illuminate practices from various viewpoints. Finally, applying the geochemical reconstruction of breastfeeding and weaning practices to human ecology, primatology, and paleoanthropology is important; basic studies of the underlying physiological mechanisms and technical improvements in the analyses will further highlight avenues for future research.

Keywords: biogeochemical methods; infant feeding practice; mammalian nursing; palaeodiet.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bone and Bones / chemistry
  • Breast Feeding*
  • Carbon Isotopes / analysis*
  • Collagen / chemistry
  • Dental Enamel / chemistry
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Milk, Human / chemistry*
  • Nitrogen Isotopes / analysis*
  • Paleontology / methods*
  • Weaning*


  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Nitrogen Isotopes
  • Collagen