Do You Think Breastfeeding a 3-Year-Old is Strange? In the Ancient World, It Saved Lives

Do You Think Breastfeeding a 3-Year-Old is Strange? In the Ancient World, It Saved Lives

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There was a time in humanity’s history that later weaning of children, up to 3 years, was considered perfectly normal. In fact, late weaning may have actually saved lives by giving kids the nutrition and immunity they needed to survive a harsh world.

A researcher studying skeletal remains of children in an ancient Egyptian cemetery at Memphis has found evidence that they suffered from conditions brought on by malnutrition. The children possibly became diseased after they were weaned off breast milk and put on less-nutritious solid-food diets, the researcher believes.

Bioarchaeologist Iwona Kozieradzka-Ogunmakin found evidence that the kids suffered from tooth decay, eye socket porosity, anemia, and sinusitis or inflammation of the sinuses from blowing dust and sand. Most of the 29 children’s remains she studied were between 3 and 5 years old at death but some were just babies, while others were as old as 12.

The researcher believes that weaning at 2.5 to 3 years left the children without immunity from certain conditions.

"After that, children had to become independent. End of the period of breastfeeding was the moment in which children lost access to an easily attainable and available source of nutrients contained in breast milk. Some of the children buried at Saqqara could have died from diseases and infections, to which they were more susceptible because of lower resistance after changing diet,” Dr. Kozieradzka-Ogunmakin says in a press release from the Science and Scholarship in Poland.

The teeth of one child indicated an age of about 4, but the limb bones were about as long as a child of 1 to 1½.

She might have found more than these diseases, but Egyptian government restrictions of foreign archaeological missions limited her to a visual study of the pathological state of the children’s bones, not a molecular study of the tissues, according to .

Dr. Kozieradzka-Ogunmakin is with the University of Manchester and joined the Polish-Egyptian Archaeological Mission to do the study of child mortality in the Ptolemaic-Early Roman Period. The Saqqara necropolis or graveyard also has burials from as far back as 6,000 years ago at the start of the Old Kingdom period. The early Roman and Ptolemaic periods date to between 332 BC to the early first century AD. Some of the children’s remains were intentionally mummified, while others were buried in shallow sands.

One of the oldest necropolises is at Saqqara. Here are the stepped pyramids from the cemetery, where both the rich and poor were interred.

One of the oldest necropolises is at Saqqara. Here are the stepped pyramids from the cemetery, where both the rich and poor were interred. ( Wikimedia Commons /Photo by Daniel Csörföly)

The necropolis of Saqqara is huge and served Memphis, a capital of ancient Egypt. The graves Dr. Koziradzka-Ogunmakin and her colleagues studied were from around the time of the downfall of ancient Egyptian civilization.

By doing a macroscopic or visual study of the bones without any other forensic or medical methods, she found that some of the kids suffered from common signs of disease. She looked at the eye sockets and saw 70 percent of the youngsters’ orbital bones were porous. She speculates the condition, called cribra orbitalia, could have resulted from anemia caused by vitamin B or iron deficiencies.

“Feeding and weaning practices spread widely across ancient Egypt could have been largely responsible for the high prevalence of cribra orbitalia in the present skeletal assemblage. Weaning a nursing infant placed it at risk, including increased morbidity and mortality as a result of infectious and parasitic diseases. Therefore, the later supplementary or solid foods were introduced into infants' diet, the greater it chances of survival,” she told

It is also possible the porosity developed from disease, such as malaria parasites. Malaria is not found in Egypt in modern times, but researchers think it may have been widespread in the ancient world.

Dr. Kozieradzka-Ogunmakin observed that one-quarter of the children also suffered from tooth decay, mostly among children 3 to 5 years old when they died. She speculates ancient Egypt’s diet staple of bread with sugar and carbohydrates may have caused the dental decay.

Other studies have been done on the human remains and burial practices, some of which were lavish and monumental, at the necropolis of Saqqara. This latest research undertook analyses of skeletons to determine how social status and environment affected health.

The dry landscape of the sprawling necropolis, with the step pyramid of Djoser in the distance, may explain the children’s inflamed sinuses.

The dry landscape of the sprawling necropolis, with the step pyramid of Djoser in the distance, may explain the children’s inflamed sinuses. ( Wikimedia Commons /Photo by isawnyu)

A press release on the Polish mission’s work quotes Dr. Kozieradzka-Ogunmakin as saying:

The necropolis at Saqqara was founded about 6 thousand years ago, at the beginning of the so-called Old Kingdom, and remained in use almost continuously over the next few millennia. In contrast to the Old Kingdom period, after two thousand years, this area of the cemetery was used as a burial place for ordinary members of the community, and not just the elite, as before.

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