The 84th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2015)

Social weaning: childhood diet and health in medieval Canterbury, UK


1Human Osteology Research Lab, School of Anthropology, University of Kent, 2Indiana Prehistory Lab, Department of Anthropology, University of Indianapolis, 3School of History, University of Kent, 4Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield

March 26, 2015 , Archview Ballroom Add to calendar

Food consumption during the medieval period is understood mainly from adult diet, higher status families, and monastic communities. By contrast, there is little direct evidence for foods consumed by children, or whether their diet corresponded with health and status. Here, we address these questions in skeletal samples from the medieval city of Canterbury. We undertake the first comprehensive intra-specific microwear texture analysis of childhood diet (n=51) and integrate this with histological ‘snap-shots’ of general health from enamel accentuated markings (n=71). An adult comparative sample (n=11) is included.

Microwear texture complexity values increased from age 1 to 4yrs while anisotropy values decreased suggesting that foods became harder and required more varied jaw movements during chewing. The 4.1-6 year olds had a significantly lower mean complexity value than younger children. Complexity values increased again while anisotropy decreased in 6.1-9 year olds. Prevalence of accentuated markings peaked at 6 months, early in the second year, and just before age 4yrs. Diet did not relate to childhood status, and adults consumed a greater range of softer and harder foods.

Health of the youngest children likely relates to an immature immune system. Correspondence between a softer diet and improved health around age 4yrs may indicate the start of ‘social weaning’. Textual evidence refers to lifestyle changes from this age onwards, as children undertook household chores and then work outside the home. This might have provided less opportunity for early childhood dietary staples contaminated with grit, and initially introduced a softer but more nutritious adult food.

Study funded by a British Academy-Leverhulme Trust research grant (SG-121921).