Prehumans already breastfed as they do today

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The Australopithecus had human as well as ape-like characteristics: The prehumans breastfed their offspring relatively similarly to today’s humans.

Already more than two million years ago, prehumans breastfed their offspring relatively similar to today’s humans. This is the conclusion drawn by an international research team from the analysis of teeth of the Australopithecus africanus living at the time. The study suggests that Australopithecus had both human and ape-like characteristics.

The team around Renaud Joannes-Boyau from the Australian Southern Cross University in Lismore presents its results in the journal “Nature”. “For the first time, we have new insights into how our ancestors raised their young and how mothers adjusted to seasonal food shortages when breastfeeding,” first author Joannes-Boyau is quoted in a statement on the study.

Australopithecus africanus lived about two to three million years ago in southern Africa. The oldest known remains of modern man (Homo sapiens) are about 300,000 years old. The researchers now analysed a total of four teeth of two Australopithecus individuals whose age is dated from 2.1 to 2.6 million years.

How long was the mammal breastfed?

They paid particular attention to the concentrations of the element barium (Ba), which is also contained in breast milk and allows conclusions to be drawn as to how long a mammal was breastfed. The scientists vaporised microscopically small parts of the teeth and examined the gas for ingredients. They compared the results with those of mammals living today.

The study showed that the mothers only breastfed their babies permanently for the first year after birth. This is comparable to modern humans, the researchers write. However, when food is scarce, offspring still receive breast milk later. “During the seasonal dry season, for example, Australopithecus mothers used breast milk repeatedly for several years to satisfy the hunger of their offspring,” says the paleoanthropologist Ottmar Kullmer from the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, who took part in the study. In this way, the upright pre-humans resembled orangutans, for example, who suckle their offspring for up to nine years.

According to the researchers, the longer nursing period also had an effect on the number of Australopithecus children. Due to the close relationship between mother and offspring over many years, the number of children remained low. (dpa)

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Mette Frederiksen is a The Washington Newsday correspondent. With her coverage of general science, NASA and the interface between technology and society, Frederiksen has been in the Science Desk's Technology Beat since joining Washington Newsday in 2018.

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