Baby bottles may go back millennia in Europe

Early farmers used vessels with spouts to wean infants, scientists suggest

ancient baby bottles

Some small clay vessels found at early European farming sites, such as these 3,200- to 2,800-year-old artifacts, may have been used to feed animal milk to human infants.


Katharina Rebay-Salisbury

Three spouted vessels from graves in ancient European cemeteries may have come from the mouths of babes.

Chemical signs of nonhuman animal milk in the artifacts suggest that the small clay containers, previously found in three children’s graves in southeastern Germany, represent early versions of baby bottles, researchers report. Spouts on these types of pots would have delivered milk to babies and young children during weaning, biomolecular archaeologist Julie Dunne of the University of Bristol in England and colleagues conclude September 25 in Nature.

Two of the graves where the newly analyzed vessels were found date to between around 2,800 and 2,450 years ago. The third burial dates to between about 3,200 and 2,800 years ago. Two of the youngsters died at around age 1 or 2; the other might have been as old as 6.

Similar clay vessels with spouts, some of which are shaped as animals, date to as early as 7,500 years ago in Europe. Such finds have been recovered at early farming villages, often in children’s graves. Possible uses of these objects, say for feeding babies or perhaps elderly or sick adults, have been unclear.

Baby tries out replica ancient baby bottle
A baby tries out a replica feeding vessel similar to ancient ones now reported to contain chemical remnants of nonhuman animal milk.Helena Seidl da Fonseca

Dairying in Europe began at least 6,000 years ago (SN: 1/29/03). Chemical markers of dairy fats from the fresh milk of animals such as cows or goats appeared in all three vessels, the team found. Pig or possibly human milk may have been mixed with the contents of one container. Milk from cows or other domesticated creatures could have supplemented but not totally replaced the nutritional value of mothers’ milk as infants were removed from breastfeeding, the scientists say.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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