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Human Nature

, Volume 12, Issue 1, pp 47–87 | Cite as

Relationship between subsistence and age at weaning in “preindustrial” societies

  • Daniel W. SellenEmail author
  • Diana B. Smay
Article

Abstract

Cross-cultural studies have revealed broad quantitative associations between subsistence practice and demographic parameters for preindustrial populations. One explanation is that variationin the availability of suitable weaning foods influenced the frequency and duration of breastfeeding and thus the length of interbirth intervals and the probability of child survival (the “weaning food availability” hypothesis). We examine the available data on weaning age variation in preindustrial populations and report results of a cross-cultural test of the predictions that weaning occurred earlier in agricultural and pastoral populations because dairy and cereal production increased the availability of easily digestible, nutrientrich foods appropriate for weaning. We found that, contrary to predictions, supplementation with liquid foods other than breast milk was delayed in agricultural populations relative to less agriculturally dependent ones and complementary feeding with solid foods was delayed in pastoral populations relative to those less dependent on herding. Although the duration of breastfeeding was longer in populations dependent on hunting, there was no qualitative evidence that such populations lacked foods appropriate for weaning. The patterns observed suggest that the relationships between demography and subsistence observed among preindustrial societies cannot be explained by the “weaning food availability” hypothesis. We discuss the implications for understanding the mechanisms underlying prehistoric human demography, subsistence shifts, allocation to parenting and mating effort, and the evolutionary implications of tradeoffs between diet and disease.

Key words

Agriculture Breastfeeding Childcare Comparative method Cross-cultural studies Cultural evolution Horticulture Hunter-gatherers Pastoralists Weanling’s dilemma Women’s work 

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Copyright information

© Springer 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyEmory UniversityAtlanta

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