Technology & Science

'Incredibly cute' ancient baby bottles discovered by archeologists

Ceramic vessels, sometimes fashioned in whimsical animal forms, were used thousands of years ago as baby bottles to give animal milk to infants, according to scientists, offering an intriguing look at how and what infants were fed in prehistoric times.

Chemical traces of milk found in ceramic vessels buried with Bronze Age children

A modern-day baby drinks milk from a reconstructed infant feeding vessel similar to those found buried in Bronze Age child graves in Germany. ( Helena Seidl da Fonseca)

Ceramic vessels, sometimes fashioned in whimsical animal forms, were used thousands of years ago as baby bottles to give animal milk to infants, according to scientists, offering an intriguing look at how and what infants were fed in prehistoric times.

Archeologists said on Wednesday they confirmed the function of these ceramic objects by finding chemical traces of milk belonging to animals such as cows, sheep and goats in three such items discovered buried in child graves in Germany.

They testify to the creativity and playfulness we often forget to attribute to our ancestors.- Katharina Rebay-Salisbury, archeologist

The oldest of the three vessels in the study was made between 2,800 and 3,200 years ago during the Bronze Age. Other similar objects dating back as far as about 7,000 years during Neolithic times have been found in various other locations, the researchers said.

These are Bronze Age feeding vessels from Vienna, Oberleis, Vösendorf and Franzhausen-Kokoron (from left to right), dated to around 1200-800 BC. (Katharina Rebay-Salisbury)

"I think this has provided us the first direct evidence of what foods baby were eating or being weaned onto in prehistory," said biomolecular archeologist Julie Dunne, of the University of Bristol in Britain, lead author of the study published in the journal Nature.

"I think this shows us the love and care these prehistoric people had for their babies."

These objects, little enough to fit in a baby's hands, served as vessels for milk, with a narrow spout for the baby to suckle liquid. While the three objects examined for the study were somewhat plain, others boasted lively shapes, including animal heads with long ears or horns and human-looking feet.

Meant as toys too?

"I find them incredibly cute. And prehistoric people may have thought so, too — they would certainly have a dual function of entertaining the children just like modern stuffed animals," said archeologist Katharina Rebay-Salisbury of the Institute for Oriental and European Archaeology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, a study co-author.

"They testify to the creativity and playfulness we often forget to attribute to our ancestors."

An artist's prehistoric family scene shows infant being fed with baby bottle similar to those found by archeologists. They allowed animal milk to be substituted for breastfeeding, and allowed babies to be fed by people other than their mother. (Christian Bisig/Archäologie der Schweiz.)

Life at the time was not easy, Rebay-Salisbury added, with many people living in unhygienic conditions, experiencing famine and disease, and facing low life expectancy. During the Bronze Age and subsequent Iron Age in Europe, perhaps about a third of all newborns died before their first birthday and only about half of children reached adulthood, Rebay-Salisbury said.

These feeding vessels may have made life easier for mothers, as animal milk could substitute for breastfeeding, the researchers said.

"Duties of mothering — amongst which feeding is an important one — can also be undertaken by other members of the community when children are fed with feeding vessels," Rebay-Salisbury said.

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