Prehistoric babies were weaned using animal milk, study suggests
The findings confirm that spouted clay vessel artefacts were baby bottles. Natalie Parletta reports.
Mums from prehistoric times appear to have used specially fashioned pottery vessels to wean their babies with milk from domesticated ruminants, a study published in the journal Nature has found.
The clay bottles or bowls, sometimes adorned with mythical animals, had small spouts through which liquid could be poured or suckled. The earliest known vessels were found in prehistoric settlements across Europe from the Neolithic (around 5000 BC), becoming more common in the Bronze and Iron Ages.
They were previously suspected to be infant feeding vessels, says lead author Julie Dunne from the University of Bristol in the UK, but could have equally been used for feeding sick people, and in any event, it wasn’t clear what they contained.
To explore this, Dunne and colleagues searched for vessels in child graves to be sure they were baby bottles. “In archaeology, context is all,” she explains. They analysed three small, spouted vessels found in Bronze and Iron Age graves of infants in a Bavarian cemetery in Germany.
Because of the vessels’ precious nature and often small openings, sampling for organic residues was “extremely challenging”, says Dunne, so they had to modify their usual sampling method which involves grinding up potsherds.
The researchers drew on a combination of molecular and isotopic techniques to identify the lipids – fats, oils and waxes – extracted from the baby bottles, and found they contained milk from ruminants, likely cattle, sheep or goat.
This is the first direct evidence of infant feeding and weaning behaviours practised by prehistoric humans, according to Dunne, and confirms the role of animal milk from domesticated animals in these early communities.
In an accompanying commentary, Siân Halcrow, from the University of Otago in New Zealand, writes that the study provides vital clues about the diets – and by proxy the health and survival – of developing infants in prehistoric times.
She remarks that animal milk doesn’t provide the broad range of essential nutrients supplied by breast milk, suggesting that further research should investigate whether the introduction of milk bottles during ancient times might have impacted infant health.
According to Dunne, hunter-gatherers tended to breastfeed for several years before weaning earlier, probably following the introduction of agriculture and sedentary lifestyles in early farming communities.
Although there was variation between different groups, trends suggest supplementary foods were given to babies from the Neolithic to Iron Age in Central Europe at around six months and weaning continued until two to three years of age.
She notes that better nutrition increased birth rates and led to significant growth of the human population during what is known as the “Neolithic demographic transition”.
But she agrees that animal milk – and its potential contamination – can have an adverse impact on infant health, suggesting that might have been a supplement while weaning to solids rather than replacing breast milk.
Nonetheless, Dunne suggests the discovery presents a “rare glimpse” into the ways that prehistoric families tried to care for their young.
“The nicest things about this study is the very real connection this gives us to mothers and infants in the past,” she says.
“I think the care and attention showed in making these little baby bottles and the fact that they were placed in the graves with children who had died young shows us the love that prehistoric mothers clearly felt for their babies.”