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Durham University

Department of Archaeology


Publication details for Dr Andrew R Millard

King, Charlotte L., Halcrow, Siân E., Millard, Andrew R., Gröcke, Darren R., Standen, Vivien G., Portilla, Marco & Arriaza, Bernardo T. (2018). Let's talk about stress, baby! Infant-feeding practices and stress in the ancient Atacama desert, Northern Chile. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 166(1): 139-155.

Author(s) from Durham


Aims and objectives
The transition to an agricultural economy is often presumed to involve an increase in female fertility related to changes in weaning practice. In particular, the availability of staple crops as complementary foods is hypothesized to allow earlier weaning in agricultural populations. In this study, our primary aim is to explore whether this model fits the agricultural transition in the Atacama Desert using incremental isotopic analysis. A secondary aim of this study is to identify isotopic patterns relating to weaning, and assess how these may be differentiated from those relating to early life stress.

Materials and methods
We use incremental isotopic analysis of dentine to examine changes in δ15N and δ13C values from infancy and childhood in sites of the Arica region (n = 30). We compare individuals from pre‐agricultural and agricultural phases to establish isotopic patterns and relate these patterns to maternal diet, weaning trajectory and physiological stress.

We find that there is no evidence for systematic temporal or geographic variation in incremental isotopic results. Instead, results from all time periods are highly variable, with weaning completed between 1.5 and 3.5 years. Characteristics of the incremental profiles indicate that both in utero and postnatal stress were a common part of the infant experience in the Atacama.

In the Atacama Desert it appears that the arrival of agricultural crops did not result in uniform shifts in weaning behavior. Instead, infant and child diet seems to have been dictated by the broad‐spectrum diets of the mothers, perhaps as a way of mitigating the stresses of the harsh desert environment.