The vessels are small and ceramic. Some resemble small teapots, others look like small pipes, and some are carved into whimsical animal shapes, with a small beak on the back.
When they were discovered in ancient cemeteries throughout Europe, some archaeologists wondered if they were used to feed the sick or the elderly. But because they were often buried in graves next to babies, most experts agreed that ships probably had a totally different purpose:
Call them prehistoric baby bottles.
Now a new chemical analysis of three of these old containers provides more evidence that the vessels were actually used to feed milk from cows, sheep or goats to human babies.
"People have known these containers for a long time and assumed they were baby bottles, but no one has done a full analysis of them," he said. Julie Dunne, a chemist from the University of Bristol, England, who led the work. "What I liked about this study was that it gave us a nice and close connection with the parents of the past."
Dunne works at the university Organic Geochemistry Unit, a research group that chemically analyzed some 10,000 ceramic shards from around the world to help archaeologists better understand which foods and other materials the artifacts contained before.
His work revealed that lipids, the building blocks of fat, can survive for thousands of years.
"What we know from years of experimental work is that fats absorb the ceramic matrix from the vase and are often preserved there," said Dunne. "Because of this, lipids survive in about 80% of the assemblies we examine."
In the new study, Dunne and his colleagues collected samples of three ceramic baby bottles that had been found near babies in former German cemeteries. Two of the bottles came from a cemetery complex that scientists believe is in use between 800 and 450 BC; The other bottle was found in a place dating from 1200 to 800 BC. (The earliest known ceramic bottles were dated to around 5000 BC.)
Researchers were looking for vessels with wide openings to make the job easier. Still, Dunne said collecting samples from the bottles was a stressful experience.
Typically, your team begins its analysis by grinding pieces of old pots. But as the small bottles were still intact, this was not an option.
"We had to adopt a modified strategy," she said.
A prehistoric family scene showing a bottle-fed child similar to those described in the new study.
(Christian Bisig / Swiss Archeology)
They cleaned the inner surfaces of the pots and then punctured just enough ceramic dust – just under 1 gram each – to see the lipids that had been absorbed by the pottery. They then used a chemical process to release the lipids from the ceramic matrix, allowing to measure the chemical and isotopic fingerprint of each.
Finally, they found that the vessels contained fatty acids from dairy products – almost certainly milk – from domestic ruminants, according to their report in the journal Nature. They were unable to tell if the milk came from cows, sheep or goats.
Halcrow, who did not participate in the study, added that the work also "provides crucial information on the diet of infant development in prehistoric human populations."
Dunne said he hopes the new work will lead to a much larger study that applies the same types of analytical tools to ceramic bottles over a larger geographical area.
"We know the ancient Greeks used similar ships, also the Romans, and some were found in prehistoric Sudan in North Africa," she said. "It would be fantastic to do a really large-scale study to see if they are always used to hold milk or if they have other processed foods."
Although breast milk has always been an integral part of child care throughout history and culture, the authors note that there is considerable variation among human societies about when new foods are introduced and how long a child continues to receive nutrition directly from children. your mother.
A modern baby feeding on a replica infant feeding vessel.
(Helena Seidl da Fonseca)
For example, archaeologists have found that hunter-gatherers tend to breastfeed for several years, while the more sedentary lifestyle of early farming communities allowed mothers to stop breastfeeding earlier because other foods were more available.
It is possible that this shorter weaning period also led to shorter birth intervals among children, the authors wrote. This, in turn, could have contributed to the considerable growth of a population known as the neolithic demographic transition.
Dunne and his fellow researchers were curious to see how a modern child would respond to a replica of one of the old bottles, so they recruited Noah, the baby of one of their friends.
The rounded shape of the prehistoric bottle fits perfectly in Noah's hands. The scientists poured some milk and put some in the child's mouth. He quickly began to suck on his nipple for a larger drink.
The old bottle technology still worked.