Prehistoric Baby Bottles Discovered in Children's Graves Give Scientists Important Clues about Neolithic Age

Ancient baby bottles discovered in the graves of infants that died thousands of years ago are shedding light on the lives of prehistoric parents and their children. The bottles, many of which were purposefully shaped to represent mythical animals, contained traces of animal milk—a discovery that may shed light on a population boom that took place during the Neolithic period.

Humans started shifting away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to larger, agricultural settlements around 7,000 years ago. At this time, they started growing crops and keeping animals. This transition is a key moment in human civilization, paving the way for modern societies to emerge.

Evidence of bottles apsuggested they could have been a way of caring for the sick.

In research published in the journal Nature, a team of scientists has now analyzed bottles found in the graves of children buried in what is now Germany. The cemeteries date to the Iron and Bronze ages, with one dating dating between 800 and 450 BC, and the other from 1200 and 800 BC. The children they were buried with were aged between 0 and 6 years old.

The bottles studied were first discovered between 20 and 30 years ago, when these sites were first excavated. However, they recently became available for study—and the team wanted to find out whether they were for infant use, and what they dispensed.

"To be sure that they were baby bottles we searched very hard to find vessels which were present in children's graves. In archaeology, context is all, and their presence in child graves confirms they were baby bottles," lead author Julie Dunne, from the U.K.'s University of Bristol, told Newsweek.

neolithic baby bottle
Infant using a reconstruction of a prehistoric baby bottle. Scientists have analyzed the residues in bottles dating back 3,000 years. Helena Seidl da Fonseca

Analysis of the residues on the bottles showed that they contained traces of milk. Two were from ruminant animals, such as cattle or sheep, while the other milk was non-ruminant—possibly a pig or human. This provides evidence these Neolithic people were supplementing their children's diets with milk from animals.

One of the vessels studied—like several other examples of bottles from this period—was shaped like a mythical animal. Commenting on the different shapes and styles produced, Dunne said: "They all seem very different. The zoomorphic ones, I assume are meant to represent mythical animals are not as common as the plainer ones. I would also say I think this shows us the love and care these prehistoric people had for their babies.

"They are almost toys as well as baby bottles and surely would have make the infants laugh! I think this shows us the love and care these prehistoric people had for their babies and gives us a very real connection to people in the past."

After the shift to a more agricultural-based lifestyle, there was something of a Neolithic baby boom. Several factors likely contributed to this increase in population, but the discovery of milk being used as a supplement for children may have played a role.

"The widespread use of animal milk to feed babies or as a supplementary weaning food led to improved nutrition and contributed to an increased birth rate, with shorter inter-birth intervals, which resulted in significant growth in human population and ultimately led to the growth of cities and the rise of urbanization that we see today," Dunne explained.

As to why the bottles had been left in the children's graves, she said: "I tend to think that they belonged to that infant. Perhaps they wanted their children to have them with them. We don't know their religious beliefs or worldview but perhaps they believed in an afterlife."