Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Breast Is Best Volume 56 Number 6, November/December 2003
by Jarrett A. Lobell

[image] Analysis of the bones of medieval infants demonstrates that breastfeeding protected them from disease. (Courtesy English Heritage) [LARGER IMAGE]

Breastfeeding proponents will hail the results of tests on tenth- to sixteenth-century bones from the deserted village of Wharram Percy, in North Yorkshire. The tests demonstrate how otherwise malnourished mothers were able to protect their children from the harsh struggle for survival in medieval England by lengthy nursing. Archaeologists were able to determine the length of weaning by isolating two nitrogen isotopes present only in breast milk. Breastfeeding not only strengthened the immune systems of medieval babies but also protected them from ingesting contaminated food and water, a major source of disease. The first-century A.D. physician Soranus is the earliest doctor known to have recommended lengthy breastfeeding, advice that greatly influenced medieval doctors.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America