Oxygen Isotope Analysis of Human Bone Phosphate Evidences Weaning Age in Archaeological Populations

Kate Britton, Benjamin T. Fuller, Thomas Tütken, Simon Mays, Michael P. Richards

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Here we report bone phosphate oxygen (δ18Op) values from perinates/neonates and infants (<3.5 years; n = 32); children (4–12 years; n = 12); unsexed juveniles (16–18 years; n = 2); and adult bones (n = 17) from Wharram Percy, North Yorkshire, England, in order to explore the potential of this method to investigate patterns of past breastfeeding and weaning. In prior studies, δ15N and δ13C analyses of bone collagen have been utilized to explore weaning age in this large and well-studied assemblage, rendering this material highly appropriate for the testing and development of this alternative method targeting the inorganic phase of bone. Data produced reveal 18O-enrichment in the youngest perinatal/neonatal and infant samples, and an association between age and bone δ18Op (and previously-published δ15N values), with high values in both these isotope systems likely due to breastfeeding. After the age of 2–3 years, δ18Op values are lower, and all children between the ages of 4 and 12, along with the vast majority of sub-adults and adults sampled (aged 16 to >50 years), have δ18Op values consistent with the consumption of local modern drinking water. The implications of this study for the reconstruction of weaning practices in archaeological populations are discussed, including variations observed with bone δ15Ncoll and δ18Op co-analysis and the influence of culturally-modified drinking water and seasonality. The use of this method to explore human mobility and palaeoclimatic conditions are also discussed with reference to the data presented. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2015. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)226-241
Number of pages16
JournalAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology
Issue number2
Early online date11 Feb 2015
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2015

Bibliographical note

With special thanks to Jean-Jacques Hublin and the MPI-EVA; to Annabell Reiner (MPI-EVA) and Bernd Steinhilber (Universitat Tubingen) for technical support;and to the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst for financial support to KB during this project (ref: A0970923). This research was funded by the Max Planck Society. TT was financed by the DFG Emmy Noether Program and acknowledges funding by the grant TU 148/2-1 for the Emmy Noether Group Bone Geochemistry. Thanks also tothe University of Aberdeen for support during the preparation of this manuscript.


  • tooth
  • bioapatite
  • breastfeeding
  • palaeoclimate
  • Medieval


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