The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)


Allomaternal nursing among hunter-gatherers

BARRY HEWLETT1 and STEVE WINN2.

1Anthropology, Washington State University, Vancouver, 2Psychology, Behavioral Health Network

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Few studies exist of allomaternal nursing in humans. It is relatively common among some hunter-gatherers, such as the Aka and Efé of the Congo Basin, but it does not occur in other foragers such as the !Kung. This paper utilizes behavioral observations of Aka and Efé infants, interviews with Aka mothers with infants, ethnographic reports from researchers working with hunter-gatherers, and a survey of the eHRAF to evaluate several allomaternal nursing hypotheses from anthropology and evolutionary biology.

The study indicates that kinship, infant age, mother’s condition, and culture impact the nature and frequency of allomaternal nursing. Women genetically related to the infant provided substantially more allomaternal nursing than women not genetically related to the infant; most allomaternal nursing took place in early infancy; mother’s illness, difficulties in breastfeeding or personal social-economic issues were common contexts for allomaternal nursing cross-culturally; and, various aspects of culture, such as cultural ideas about women other than mother nursing children, who controls infant feeding (e.g., whether feeding is initiated by infant or mother) and residence pattern, can increase or decrease the frequency and pattern of allomaternal nursing.

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