Gender across Generations Childhood Food Practices as Socialization Processes in Ancient China

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Melanie J. Miller
Siân E. Halcrow
Bowen Yang
Yu Dong
Kate Pechenkina
Wenquan Fan


Food is a biological imperative as well as a core material that humans use in socializing ourselves, and the things we choose to consume are infused with cultural meanings. Children, especially very young children, have little agency in subsistence decisions, and therefore the foods that caretakers feed to children may hold profound information about cultural value systems and reveal social processes and idealized identities. Here we focus on relationships between food, sex, and gender in early life by studying the childhood diets of 57 Eastern Zhou period individuals from the Central Plains region of China (771–221 BCE). Using stable isotope analysis of incremental dentin samples, we create detailed dietary histories of childhood years. From very early in life, the average δ15N value for boys is notably higher than the average for girls, indicating slightly more protein consumption for most males, and this continues across childhood. Foods such as meat and millet were highly valued in ancient China and, whether intentional or not, become associated with aspects of sex and gender through preferential feeding to male children. These isotopic data reveal a key aspect of the socializing processes of children across generational interactions with caretakers, with food communicating information about social worth and gender, which becomes embodied in the developing child.

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