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Spouted vessels may have helped wean children off breast milkKatharina Rebay-Salisbury THREE small spouted drinking vessels collected from ancient graves of small children may have been used as prehistoric baby bottles. The artefacts, found in Bronze and Iron Age settlements in Germany, contain traces of animal milk. The pots are a window on a key stage in human history when there was rapid population growth aided by the ability to nourish babies with something other than human breast milk, says Julie Dunne at the University of Bristol, UK. “They bring you very close to the past, to prehistoric mothers and children.” Over a hundred spouted clay vessels in assorted shapes have been found in various European prehistoric settlements dating as far back as 7000 years. Advertisement The idea that such vessels were used for babies is long-standing, especially as a few were found in infants’ graves, but an alternative idea is that they were for feeding watery foods like gruel to sick or older people. Dunne’s team analysed chemical residues from spouted pots that were found in the graves of three young children, which dated back around 3000 years. Two vessels had fatty acids found in milk from goats, sheep or cattle. The third had a profile suggesting it had contained both animal and breast milk at various times (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1572-x). The vessels could have been used to wean babies off breast milk or given to those whose mothers had died, says Dunne. The appearance of animal milk in children’s diets is important because when women are breastfeeding, they are less able to get pregnant. Modern hunter-gatherers tend to breastfeed their infants for up to five years, which then spaces out their children. “They’re on the go, they don’t want to have to carry and manage lots of babies,” says Dunne. “3000 the age in years of some of the prehistoric baby bottles” When people took up farming, feeding infants with something other than breast milk would have let families have children in quicker succession and boost the population, says Dunne. Animal milk wouldn’t have been the only alternative baby food to breast milk, says Francesca Fulminante, also at the University of Bristol, who wasn’t involved in the study. “Cereals and pulses might also have allowed women to stop breastfeeding earlier.” Other studies looking at children’s bones from this time period suggest that solid foods were given from around six months of age and that children were fully weaned by two to three years. Feeding babies with animal milk would have increased their risk of infections, says Dunne, and it wouldn’t have had the same balance of nutrients as breast milk. However, “while animal milk may have some drawbacks, it always beats starving to death”, says Amy Tuteur, who writes about breastfeeding at her website, The Skeptical OB. Some spouted vessels found at other prehistoric sites have intricate designs. One seems designed to appeal to a child: it has an animal’s head that could have been used as a handle and two feet to stand on, with the drinking spout emerging from its bottom. “It shows real love and care,” says Dunne. “They think a young infant is going to laugh at this.” Dunne’s team made a replica of one bottle and gave it to a friend’s 1-year-old, filled with apple sauce. His mother reported that he seemed to enjoy wolfing down its contents. More on these topics: archaeology humans