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Multi-isotopic analysis as a method for studying the physiology of breastfeeding and weaning in modern and archaeological children


Stable isotope ratio analysis is a powerful tool that can be used to elucidate dietary patterns in humans. This technique is based on the principal that 'you are what you eat' such that the isotopic composition of body tissues can be used to reconstruct t he general types of foods and liquids consumed.

An emerging application of this method is in the area of infant health and nutrition where stable isotope ratios have the ability to determine breastfeeding and weaning habits in modern and archaeological populations. To date only one large scale study of modern breastfeeding and weaning patterns has been conducted, and this was limited to only carbon and nitrogen stable isotope ratios. Recent advances in mass spectrometry now permit additional elemental ratios to be analyzed (oxygen, sulphur, hydrogen, amino acids) in biological samples.

These new isotopic ratios have the potential to provide more information about modern and ancient infant health and nutrition, but there have been no studies in this area of research. As a Marie Curie Incoming International Fellow, I plan to focus my research on the stable isotope ratios of oxygen, sulphur, hydrogen, and amino acid to discover new information about modern and ancient infant nutrition, specifically breastfeeding and weaning practices.

The primary goals of this research include: the identification and characterization of the isotopic signatures of breastfeeding and weaning in modern infants under controlled dietary conditions, and the application of these isotopic markers to archaeological specimens to elucidate breastfeeding and weaning patterns in past populations.

This multi-pronged isotopic approach to understanding infant health and nutrition will allow the development of isotopic models that can be use d to glean the maximum amount information from archaeological samples and will provide a glimpse of societal views and health patterns that are largely invisible in the archaeological record.

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