09 October 2019

Bottle-feeding babies in prehistory

As reported in Nature:
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 δ 13 C and ∆ 13 C 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.
It's not just a quaint curiosity.   Breast-feeding inhibits ovulation, rendering the mother temporarily infertile until the newborn is weaned.  Bottle-feeding with ruminant milk would shorten the interval between pregnancies and lead to significant population expansion.


  1. The several stories on this subject seem to keep missing the obvious. That babies were fed this way with animal milk, for the purpose of weaning, or to let the mother get pregnant again. But these are in infant graves, for one thing. And I think it’s more likely it was a way to keep an infant alive after the mother died, in childbirth most likely. So, it wasn’t ideal for a baby, but gave them a chance. And someone wanted to keep these infants alive, and it was common enough that they had a pottery shape ready for the purpose.

    Women dying in childbirth is still way too common, and that was surely the case then as well.


    So, yeah, some children were weaned with this, and some may have had siblings sooner, but I suspect the more common reason was to keep the baby fed after the mother died giving birth. Other women were keeping their own babies alive, or would also have wet-nursed the orphan. Maybe it’s proof of fatherhood, men caring for new-borns or toddlers.


  2. I'm with you Joan! Feeding babies non-human milk has always been a last-resort option--the "benefit" of freeing up the mother to get pregnant every year instead of every two or three years is outweighed by the increased possibility of maternal death either in childbirth or because her body becomes weakened by too-frequent pregnancies.


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