Neanderthals offer clues about breastfeeding and evolution

THE breastfeeding habits of Neanderthals are the subject of a paper in the prestigious scientific journal Nature that has been co-authored by SCU geochemist Dr Renaud Joannes-Boyau.

By examining changes in the distribution of barium in teeth, researchers have been able to ascertain that a Neanderthal species had breastfed for seven months and then weaned for seven months.

Earlier weaning enabled shorter inter-birth intervals, which influenced population growth, evolution and success.

Dr Joannes-Boyau said the findings were "another brick in the wall of our understanding of human evolution".

"It tells us about our ancestors' behaviour with kids and their diets," he said.

The project was a collaboration between several universities around the world including Harvard, the University of California, Berkeley, the universities of Melbourne and Sydney and SCU.

Dr Joannes-Boyau said it was "a big deal" for SCU and he thought it was the first time a researcher from SCU had appeared in Nature.

The research was made possible by a new piece of technology, a high-resolution laser-ablation unit coupled to an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer.

"We can pick up trace elements and isotopes and have a special understanding of what is going on for the first time," Dr Joannes-Boyau said.

Their work was based on a single sample and they are now hoping to expand it, but "archeologists are reluctant to give up their valuable samples."