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Art & Artifacts

Prehistoric parents weaned babies with animal milk

Chemical analysis of 3,000-year-old ceramic bottles suggests that ancient European parents used the vessels to wean their children

by Laura Howes
September 25, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 38


A drinking vessel in the shape of an animal.
Credit: Katharina Rebay-Salisbury
This feeding vessel shaped like an animal was made around 1200– 800 BCE.

Around 9,000 years ago, humans in Europe started to settle down, plant crops, and raise animals. They also had a baby boom. Chemists led by Julie Dunne of the University of Bristol have now found evidence that by the first millennium BCE parents were weaning their children with animal milk (Nature 2019, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1572-x). “This is the first direct evidence that babies were bottle-fed ruminant milk in prehistoric Europe,” says Siân Halcrow, an expert in childhood archaeology at the University of Otago, who wasn’t involved in the study

Baby feeding from reconstructed infant feeding vessel.
Credit: Helena Seidl da Fonseca
A baby feeds from a reconstructed infant feeding vessel.

In 2016, Dunne was scrolling through Facebook when a post caught her eye. The post was from the “Motherhood in Prehistory” page, run by Katharina Rebay-Salisbury at the Institute for Oriental and European Archaeology, and it described prehistoric feeding vessels. These vessels are small and have a spout that someone could use to pour liquid into a mouth or that a child could suck liquid through. Nobody, the posts explained, knows what people put in the vessels or if they were used for babies or the infirm. Dunne is a biomolecular archaeologist and analyzes organic residues in ancient pots, so she thought she could help shed light on how these vessels were used. She contacted Rebay-Salisbury and a collaboration was born.

The feeding bottles Rebay-Salisbury described first appeared in Europe around 5500–4800 BCE. They are made of clay, which means residues of the foods placed in them could be absorbed in the ceramic. But not all the bottles had a shape that allowed researchers to take samples without destroying the artifact.

Eventually the researchers found three bottles from the graves of children from the first millennium BCE, in what is now Bavaria, Germany. These bottles have an open bowl that allowed Dunne to reach in, remove surface contaminants, and then gently use a drill to remove small amounts of ceramic from the inside. She used gas chromatography and isotope analysis on the powdered pottery samples and found lipid markers for ruminant animal milk.

Parents today know cow milk is not as easy for children to digest as human milk, and unpasteurized milk can be contaminated with bacteria. But for parents with growing families thousands of years ago, animal milk may have helped supplement the children’s diets. “What archaeologists really want is to get that connection to the past,” Dunne says. And with these vessels, “you can see the love and care that the mothers have lavished on these babies.”


This story was updated on Sept. 26, 2019, to correct the age of the ceramic bottles in the subhead. This story was updated again on Sept. 30, 2019, to correct the age of the ceramic bottles studied. Those bottles were from the first millennium BCE, not the first century BCE.



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