Ridiculously cute prehistoric animal-shaped baby bottles found in Europe

For the first time, researchers have analyzed residue within small clay bottles with spouts dating back to the Neolithic era thousands of years ago, and have discovered that these vessels may have been ancient baby bottles.

It turns out that bottle-feeding is not a modern phenomenon, but a go-to move parents have been using for thousands of years prior to the advent of the baby bottles we recognize today.

Multiple such vessels can be found in museums around the world, including the Wien Museum in Austria, which is home to several of them. They come in all kinds of interesting shapes. Some even have what appear to be the feet and heads of animals.


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Four Neolithic baby bottles dating back to the Bronze Age. Image via Enver-Hirsch, Wien Museum.

While the suspected purpose of these pottery pieces is that they were used as baby bottles, or even as bottles for the sick and elderly, scientists had been unable to examine the residue contained inside to figure out what liquid, if any at all, had been poured in them at one time.

“Possible infant feeding vessels first appear in Europe in the Neolithic (around 5,000 BCE), becoming more commonplace throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages,” University of Bristol School of Chemistry’s Dr. Julie Dunne said according to Sci-News.

“The vessels are usually small enough to fit within a baby’s hands and have a spout through which liquid could be suckled. Sometimes they have feet and are shaped like imaginary animals. Despite this, in the lack of any direct evidence for their function, it has been suggested they may also be feeding vessels for the sick or infirm.”

With these thoughts in mind, Dunne and her team set out to analyze the contents, or at least what remained of them and extracted samples, kind of like how archaeologists are also analyzing the contents of pottery found in Egypt to learn more about ancient alcoholic beverages.

In a study published in Nature, the team described the process of discovering more about the infant diet of thousands of years ago and what they found.

“The study of childhood diet, including breastfeeding and weaning, has important implications for our understanding of infant mortality and fertility in past societies,” the team wrote.

Stable isotope analyses of nitrogen from bone collagen and dentine samples of infants have provided information on the timing of weaning; however, little is known about which foods were consumed by infants in prehistory.

The earliest known clay vessels that were possibly used for feeding infants appear in Neolithic Europe, and become more common throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. However, these vessels—which include a spout through which liquid could be poured—have also been suggested to be feeding vessels for the sick or infirm.

Here we report evidence for the foods that were contained in such vessels, based on analyses of the lipid ‘fingerprints’ and the compound-specific values of the major fatty acids of residues from three small, spouted vessels that were found in Bronze and Iron Age graves of infants in Bavaria. The results suggest that the vessels were used to feed infants with milk products derived from ruminants. This evidence of the foodstuffs that were used to either feed or wean prehistoric infants confirms the importance of milk from domesticated animals for these early communities, and provides information on the infant-feeding behaviours that were practised by prehistoric human groups.

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A modern recreation of an ancient baby bottle being suckled by a modern baby. Image by Helena Seidl da Fonseca via Nature.

The analysis of the bottles proved successful and gave the research team more knowledge about prehistoric infant care.

“These very small, evocative, vessels give us valuable information on how and what babies were fed thousands of years ago, providing a real connection to mothers and infants in the past,” Dunne said. “Similar vessels, although rare, do appear in other prehistoric cultures (such as Rome and ancient Greece) across the world.”

So, now we know that mothers were using bottles to feed babies farther back in history, even if the sample size of the study is not as wide as the team would have liked.

“Ideally, we’d like to carry out a larger geographic study and investigate whether they served the same purpose,” Dunne said.

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An assortment of Neolithic baby bottles that provided samples for analysis. Image via Nature.

But why were these bottles necessary? Well, just like taking care of infants is quite a task today, it would have been even more difficult during Neolithic times. Using bottles to feed allowed a mother to take on other tasks while someone else fed the baby, as well as giving her a break from breastfeeding.

Archaeologist and study Co-authorDr. Katharina Rebay-Salisbury noted:

“Bringing up babies in prehistory was not an easy task. We are interested in researching cultural practices of mothering, which had profound implications for the survival of babies. It is fascinating to be able to see, for the first time, which foods these vessels contained,” wrote Rebay-Salisbury.

Conveniently, the technology now exists giving scientists a rare look at what mothers were feeding their babies, and they can compare it to what babies are fed today.

“This is a striking example of how robust biomolecular information, properly integrated with the archaeology of these rare objects, has provided a fascinating insight into an aspect of prehistoric human life so familiar to us today,” University of Bristol Professor Richard Evershed said.

Learning more about our past helps us learn more about ourselves. It’s fascinating to discover that even mothers dating back thousands of years ago turned to bottle-feeding their babies, whether it be to give themselves a break or so that they could pay attention to other responsibilities. These ancient clay vessels still had residue inside allowing future researchers to analyze it when the right technology had been developed. And now, it’s likely that other pottery will be similarly examined to unlock secrets they may still hold.


The BBC comments on the prehistoric baby bottles below:

Featured Image: Screenshot via Facebook/Helena Seidl da Fonseca (see below)

Traces of domesticated animal milk have been detected in three small Bronze Age ceramic vessels fitted with narrow…

Posted by Archaeology Magazine on Friday, September 27, 2019

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