Science News

Mothers of African australopiths suckled children for a long time to make up for food shortages

Analyzing the fossils of teeth of Australopithecus africanus, a species of hominid lived in Africa between 2 and 3 million years ago, a group of researchers from the University of Monash has better delineated some behaviors of the species, in particular the roles within the family and even more particularly the evolution of maternal roles and parental responsibilities.

The study, published in Nature, was based on the analysis of various remains of teeth from Australopithecus africanus fossils found in South Africa. One of the first pieces of information, among the most interesting traced by the researchers, is related to breastfeeding: the babies were nursed continuously from birth until they were one year old but any adverse environmental conditions, above all the scarcity of food, induced the mothers to feed the young even longer, supplementing the scarce food with the mother’s milk.

This is the first research that shows the existence of what can be considered as a very lasting bond between mothers and children in Australopithecus, as stated by Luca Fiorenza, a researcher at the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute, Australia, and one of the authors of the research.

In the era in which Australopithecus africanus lived in Africa, there were strong climatic-environmental upheavals that testified to the difficulties these hominids had to overcome, at least for most of their history.

Researchers used special laser sampling techniques to analyze teeth by vaporizing microscopic portions. The gas obtained was analyzed to discover the chemical signatures, in a sort of mass spectrometry, which has shown results since the researchers found a variety of information about the diet of these populations.

They also discovered that the food they used was rich in lithium, an element that reduces the protein deficit in those little ones who have major growth problems in adverse environmental conditions, as Joannes-Boyau, a researcher at Southern Cross University in Lismore, states.

Probably these tactics, which saw the little ones always cared for longer and weaned later and later, also reduced the number of children that women could do or make to survive.

In addition, such strong ties between mothers and children also changed the very structure of these societies and the ways these hominid populations put in place to procure food and in general to survive.