In a first, a team of scientists have found evidence that babies during prehistoric times were fed animal milk directly from clay vessels similar to today’s baby bottles. At times, these vessels even resembled mythical claw-footed animals.
"Bringing up babies in prehistory was not an easy task," said Dr Katharina Rebay-Salisbury, from the Institute for Oriental and European Archaeology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, in a statement. "We are interested in researching cultural practices of mothering, which had profound implications for the survival of babies."
The researchers studied three small vessels with narrow spouts found in child graves in Bavaria. Yet just because the vessels were buried with the infants doesn’t mean they were the precursors to modern-day baby bottles; it’s possible they were used to feed the ill or to hold the mother’s own milk. To unearth their true use, the team needed to get technological.
The team unleashed the power of chemical and isotopic analysis to investigate the residue still stuck inside these Neolithic vessels after all this time (around 5,000 BCE). The technique extracts lipids that would have been absorbed into the pots when the milk was heated. When this happens, the molecules can last for thousands of years. Published in Nature, the team detected milk from either domesticated cattle, sheep or goats.
"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," said Richard Evershed FRS of the University of Bristol's Organic Geochemistry Unit.
The researchers believe that the babies were either fed animal milk in the place of their mother’s milk, to wean them onto other foods, or both. Previous studies found evidence of weaning directly from the infant bones themselves but only provided the tentative "when" they were weaned, not the "what" or "how".
"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," said lead author Dr Julie Dunne from the University of Bristol.
Such a feat of weaning an infant on animal's milk would only have been possible as the community transitioned to or already had established farming practices. As a result, the use of animal milk improved nutrition in some parts of world and increased birth rates.